At the intersection of science and society
Last week I was holding a freshly dried Roundtree and York blue stripped button down shirt when I had a sudden realization so severe that my vision began to fade to the soft gray light that signals the onset of a loss of consciousness. A connection was made that was so visceral, so astounding, that my body could not decide if vomiting or passing out was the correct course of action. Standing there in my apartment complex’s laundry room, holding my warm, crisp shirt, I realized that the garment was stained with blood. It wasn’t mine or from anyone that I knew. The blood wasn’t even physically present, but rather was a price for the state of the cloth that I held by my fingers. It wasn’t the blood of the Sri Lankan workers who stitched it together. It wasn’t the blood of workers who harvested the cotton comprising 68% of the shirt’s weave. It was the blood of my own countrymen. My shirt was stained with the blood of other Americans.
The jewelers of the world had a problem in the nineteen nineties. More and more people were becoming aware that more and more of the diamonds showing up in western markets were so-called “blood diamonds”. Clearly, a person discovering that the diamond engagement ring they just bought had been mined to sustain genocide was not good for the diamond business. Or, I guess, humanity. So the United Nations, spurred on by NGOs like Silent Witness, enacted steps to try to ensure that diamonds entering the global trade were being mined cleanly and legally. These diamonds could be certified as being clean of the blood of civilians that had their lands stolen and their bodies mutilated to satisfy a global lust for crystalized carbon. It is still unclear how effective these measures were or how effective they continue to be. Luckily for the diamond business, people have stopped caring as much. So has the diamond business.
“Ok, enjoy your life in Hell!” These were the parting words of a coal industry representative to West Virginia resident Andy Winter. Andy has lived in Lindytown all his life. His family had lived there all of their lives. It was only when Andy refused to sell his family’s portion of Appalachia to the coal companies that he was condemned to the ninth circle for betraying… someone. The companies wanted the land for something called Mountaintop Removal mining, or MTR. As opposed to traditional mining, MTR involves the literal leveling of mountains to gather the coal out from amongst the rubble. It is estimated that more than 500 mountains have been erased from the landscape through this kind of mining.
But mountains don’t simply come down like they do in a window display at an outdoor store. Their demolition commends a heavy price. Mountains have to be cleared of all timber. This leaves only jagged scars where old growth forest used to be. Rarely is this timber even taken to market; it is buried or burned. Rubble blasted from mountainsides is discarded in streambeds, the act of which destroys aquatic habitats millions of years in the making. These streams will not become viable again on any timescale that concerns the juvenile species that doomed them. Entire aquatic communities are lost, and the fish that survive are subject to greatly increased levels of selenium, a toxic by-product of MTR that is supposed to be contained in specially designed pools. Scores of fish with deformed spines and jaws bring the soundness of these pool’s design sharply into question. The EPA, by the way, was recently persuaded by the coal lobby to raise the maximum amount of selenium pollution allowed in rivers near mining operations.
And lest you think the price to be paid for this rock is measured solely in disrupted natural communities; human communities also share in this burden. Coal companies use technically legal yet morally objectionable practices to snatch up all the land they can. Entire towns, including churches and cemeteries, are dynamited to extract the other black gold that lies amongst the smoldering remains of both natural and human communities. Residents that keep their lands, residents like Andy Winter, must contend with living on an increasingly poisoned property. Studies have found that humans living near mining operations are 50% more likely to die of cancer and 42% more likely to be born with birth defects. All of this while blasting can legally take place only a thousand feet from their front door.
Standing there, holding my warm shirt in my fingers, I noticed the sickening blood stain. Humans like to convince themselves that the members of our species who commit atrocities are vastly different than we are. It is only in the savage wilds of Africa that people have their lands seized and their bodies mutilated in the name of the blood diamond trade. Those things could not possibly happen in America. But with 45% of America’s electricity coming from coal and most of that coal coming from Appalachia, the fact is America has a blood stone of its own. And nearly all aspects of my life, and of your life, depend on this trade. It is not just my clothes that have been ruined with blood, but nearly my entire life. I’m still not sure if passing out or vomiting is the correct course of action.