The Israel lobbies don’t win every fight on Capitol Hill, but over time they have tended to win the big ones in recent decades. This time, they are going down. Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, a notorious narcissist, appears to have completely over-estimated his ability to deploy those lobbies to overrule President Obama on the United Nations Security Council’s deal with Iran to monitor its civilian nuclear energy program so as to forestall any break-out toward an atomic bomb.
On Tuesday, two Democrats known as Iran hawks came out for the agreement, Senator Robert P. Casey of Pennsylvania and Senator Chris Coons of Delaware. That makes 31 Democrats and 2 independents in the Senate for Obama, and he only needs 34 to block an override of his veto if a resolution is passed in Congress and sent to his desk. Given that Casey and Coons are hard line Iran hawks, if Obama can get them, there are others in the undecided column that will be even easier to convince. In fact, the Democrats and independents have 46 seats, and Obama has so far only lost two senators, Schumer and Menendez. If he can keep at least 39 Democrats and the two independents with him, he could even avoid the embarrassment of a resolution against the deal passing at all. It is highly likely that most Democrats in the House will stand with the president, as well.
Casey’s office put out a 17-page statement on the deal. He said, “This agreement will substantially constrain the Iranian nuclear program for its duration, and, compared with all realistic alternatives, it is the best option available to us at this time . . . ” Casey called it “one of the most difficult decisions of my public career.”
“I will support this agreement and vote against any measures to disapprove it in Congress . . . I will support this agreement because it puts us on a known path of limiting Iran’s nuclear program for the next 15 years with the full support of the international community. The alternative, to me, is a scenario of uncertainty and likely isolation. . . Finally, I will support this agreement despite its flaws because it is the better strategy for the United States to lead a coalesced global community in containing the spread of nuclear weapons.”
Coons does not like some aspects of the agreement very much, but he is convinced that to withdraw from it would isolate the US from the other Security Council members rather than isolating Iran. He also doesn’t think getting a better deal or reimposing severe sanctions is plausible.
Representatives and senators generally try to represent their constituents, and a recent poll [pdf] found that three-fourths of Democrats would find it acceptable or tolerable if Congress approved of the Vienna agreement with Iran. Moreover, 63% of the general public feels that way! Democrats and independents, who together make up at least two-thirds of the electorate, agree on this matter. Among Republicans, even 44% of them would find approval tolerable or acceptable.
The US has many ethnic lobbies, and the Israel lobby is not different from the Cuban or Armenian. The Israel lobbies have lost battles that were important to them (they initially opposed the massive arming of Saudi Arabia, but Saudi Arabia is nevertheless massively armed). Moreover, ethnic lobbies are often not completely united on certain issues, and that is what happened here.
Netanyahu faced the problem that the US Jewish community strongly favors the Iran deal. In polling, Jewish Americans are much more enthusiastic about it than the general American public, which also largely supports it. The left-leaning lobby for Israel, J-Street, has even spent millions on television advertising in support of the agreement. There is a sense in which the Iran deal is a project of the American Jewish community as well as of other Democrats, and is their reaction against the excesses of Bush’s Iraq War. A majority of the Jewish senators have come out for it. They believe that diplomacy can make Israel more secure, whereas flailing about fighting wars and undermining stability in the region has made it an even more dangerous neighborhood for Israel. The much more hawkish American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Jewish Institute for National Affairs, the Zionist Organization of America and other constituents of the Israel lobbies have all along represented a small proportion of the American Jewish community. It is admittedly an extremely wealthy sliver of the community, but votes and enthusiasm matter more than money, or Mitt Romney would be president.
While Obama does need another senator (and two or three would be better, just to make sure) to ensure this historic victory for peace and diplomacy, it is not premature to call this game over. The only suspense now is whether Obama can get 41 in the Senate and so forestall a negative resolution entirely. That would be best of all.
In view of the dire UN report warning that in 5 years Gaza may well be uninhabitable for its 2 million Palestinian residents, it is worth considering again that this outcome is being connived at by the Israeli far right wing, one mouthpiece for which is academic gadfly Martin Kramer. 5 years ago, this was his proposal:
Martin Kramer revealed his true colors at the Herzliya Conference  , wherein he blamed political violence in the Muslim world on population growth, called for that growth to be restrained, and praised the illegal and unconscionable Israeli blockade of civilian Gazans for its effect on reducing the number of Gazans.
It is shocking that Kramer, who has made a decade-long career of attacking social science understanding of the Middle East and demonizing anyone who departs even slightly from his rightwing Israeli-nationalist political line, should be given a cushy office at Harvard as a ‘fellow’ while spewing the most vile justifications for war crimes like the collective punishment of Gazan children.
Kramer is after all not nobody. He was an adviser to the Giuliani presidential campaign. He is listed as an associate of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the influential think tank in Washington of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. He is associated with Daniel Pipe’s ‘Middle East Forum,’ a neo-McCarthyite organization dedicated to harassing American academics who do not toe the political line of Israel’s ruling Likud Party.
Kramer’s remarks are wrong, offensive and racist by implication. He is driven to them by his nationalist ideology, which cannot recognize the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians by Israelis in 1948, cannot see that most Palestinians have been deprived by Israeli policies of citizenship rights (what Warren Burger called ‘the right to have rights’, as Margaret Somers pointed out), and that Palestinians are even at this moment being deprived of basic property and other rights by Israeli occupation. To admit that any of these actions produces a backlash is to acknowledge the Palestinian movements as forms of national liberation activism, and to legitimize Palestinian aspirations. Rightwing Zionism is all about erasing the Palestinians from history. And now Kramer wants to make it about erasing future Palestinian children!
Where have we seen the picture Kramer draws before? It is just a recycled form of Malthusianism, where the population growth rates of “some people” is seen as dangerous to society. Barbara Brown wrote of Apartheid South Africa:
‘ [White] South Africans who express a [concern with Black population growth] perceive a close relationship between population growth rates and political instability. There are two variants of this approach. The first holds that a growing black and unemployed population will mean increased poverty which will in turn lead to a black revolt. . .
In an opening address to a major private sector conference on ‘population dynamics’ in South Africa, the president of the 1820 Foundation argued that ‘Rapid population growth translates into a steadily worsening employment future, massive city growth . . . and an increase in the number of poor and disadvantaged. All are rightly viewed as threats to social stability and orderly change.’
A second, but smaller, group believes the black threat arises simply out of the changing ratio of white to black. This group sees that ‘THE WHITES ARE A DWINDLING MINORITY IN THE COUNTRY’ and argues that this situation will lead to a ‘similar reduction of white political authority’.
Some argue for birth control on even more overtly racist grounds, but few people in leadership positions do so, at least publicly. Debates in the House of Assembly have included remarks to the effect that blacks are unable to make a contribution to South African society and so should be encouraged to limit their numbers. The organiser of a ‘Population Explosion’ conference, a medical doctor who is deputy director of the Verwoerd Hospital, argued that whites must organise a family planning programme for blacks because the latter group is biologically incapable of exercising foresight.’
– Barbara B. Brown, “Facing the ‘Black Peril’: The Politics of Population Control in South Africa,” Journal of Southern African Studies, Vol. 13, No. 2(Jan., 1987), pp. 256-273, this quote pp. 263-64.
How ironic, that Kramer should now resort to the very kind of arguments Grant used to condemn Martin Kramer’s ancestors being allowed to come to the United States.
As usual, Kramer, a notorious anti-intellectual opposed to the mainstream academic study of the Middle East, is wrong as a matter of social science.
Population growth in and of itself explains nothing, and certainly not terrorism. Between 1800 and 1900, Great Britain’s population tripled, whereas France underwent a demographic transition and grew very slowly. Yet Britain experienced no revolution, no great social upheavals in that period. France, in contrast, lurched from war to war, from empire to monarchy to empire to Republic, and saw the rise of a plethora of radical social movements, including the Paris Commune.
High population growth can be a problem for development, and can contribute to internal conflict over resources, but it is only one factor. If economic growth outstrips population growth (say the economy grows 7 percent and population grows 3 per year), then on a per capita basis that is the same as 4 percent economic growth per capita per annum, which would be good for most countries. Or if a place is thinly populated and rich in resources, population growth may not be socially disruptive. Most countries in the world have grown enormously in population during the past century, yet they display vastly different rates of social violence.
Although under some circumstances, rapid population growth can contribute to internal social instability, it is irrelevant to international terrorism as a political tactic. The deployment of terror, which the US Federal Code defines as the use of violence against civilians for political purposes by a non-state actor, is always a form of politics. The Zionist terrorists who blew up the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in 1946, which killed 91 persons and wounded 46, did not act because Jewish Irgun members had too many brothers and sisters. (And if you think about who exactly might have made an argument of that form in the 1940s, it becomes clear how smelly Kramer’s is.) Irgun blew the hotel up because British Mandate intelligence had offices there, and because these Zionist activists did not care if they killed dozens of civilians.
Political violence is about grievances, land, resources and politics. Palestinians were no more violent than any other group in the Middle East until they were ethnically cleansed and their property was stolen by Jewish colonists in their homeland, for which they never received compensation. As Robert Pape has shown, suicide bombings cluster in the area in and around Israel, in Iraq and Afghanistan/ Northern Pakistan, places where people feel militarily occupied. But there are none in Mali or Benin, countries with among the highest population growth rates in the world.
Kramer’s argument is implicitly racist because he applies the population-growth calculus mainly to Arabs, whose family size he minds in ways that he does not others. Belize and the Cameroons have higher population growth rates than Libya. Is Kramer afraid of those two countries? Why is it only Arab children he marks as a danger?
Kramer will find, in his new role as the Madison Grant of the twenty-first century, that his arguments are a double-edged sword that even more unsavory persons than he will gleefully wield against groups other than Arabs.
The Israeli press is reporting that Iran has made a firmer military alliance with the Russian Federation in Syria, and that Moscow is sending pilots to Damascus to fly missions in that country against Daesh (ISIS, ISIL) and other Muslim extremist groups.
The Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad has suffered a series of losses, in Idlib, Palmyra and elsewhere, and Russia may be afraid that without a substantial intervention, the regime could fall.
Some Syrian Daesh units and other vigilante extremists have a Chechen presence; Chechnya is a territory of the Russian Federation that launched two major rebellions, in the 1990s and again at the turn of the century, and Chechen extremists remain a top security concern for Moscow. To have nearby Syria (only a 20-hour drive from the Russian border through Georgia and Turkey). Russia does not want an extremist Muslim state so near to it, which will give support to Chechen and other rebels inside the federation.
BBC Monitoring translates from the Hebrew of Alex Fishman’s report in the daily Yediot Aharanot:
“Russian combat pilots will arrive in Syria in the next few days and operate battle helicopters and warplanes of the Russian air force against ISIS targets and the extreme Islamist militias operating to topple Asad’s regime… Indeed, the Russians have no hostile intentions towards Israel or any other sovereign state in the region and their central objective is fighting ISIS and preserving Asad’s regime, but the mere presence of a Russian aerial force in the skies of the region will certainly also influence the considerations in relation to the way Israel airforce is used… Thus an Iranian-Russian coalition is being formed alongside the coalition of the United States and its allies against ISIS. On the way, Iran has become a central axis – in the eyes of the powers – to solving all the ills of the Middle East.” [From commentary by Alex Fishman in centrist, mass circulation Yediot Aharonot]
The rumors now are that Russia intends to go much further, and has decided to do for Syria what the US did last summer and fall for Iraq. Moscow will, Elaph says, send thousands of military personnel as trainers, along with some pilots, to shore up the al-Assad regime.
The plans are alleged to come out of closer diplomatic and militiary ties between Russia and Iran, and to have been approved by the commander of Iran’s special forces, the Quds Force (Jerusalem Brigade), Qasem Soleimani. Soleimani is alleged to have made a recent visit to Moscow to coordinate the new strategy.
While Israeli sources are worried about the growth of a Russia-Iran alliance in the region, Elaph maintains that the United States is perfectly happy with the Russian plans, which add firepower in the US coalition’s own bombing campaigns (which have included Australia, the UK, Turkey and some Gulf fighter jets). It says the US is already engaged in a similar coordination with Iran against Daesh in Iraq.
Switching to green energy sources like wind and solar is necessary to save the planet from increased concentrations of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, which cause global warming. But it will also save you money. How much? Citi Bank has a new estimate that going green will save the world $1.4 trillion by 2040! Remember, once the installations are constructed, wind and solar fuel is free. And offsetting carbon emissions will avoid damage out our coasts and extreme weather events that will in themselves be costly (which will be caused by rising global temperatures if we keep dumping 35 billion tons of CO2 a year into the atmosphere).
German automaker BMW is going all electric within ten years. Every vehicle in its fleet will either be an EV or a hybrid plug-in (i.e. some will have small gas tanks and a separate gas combustion engine to extend the range of the electric battery). The automobiles will be redesigned to be lighter, to offset the weight of the battery, and will be more aerodynamic to reduce wind pull and allow better mileage. The change is prompted by the European Union’s increasingly strict limits on carbon pollution. The BMW design and battery breakthroughs will certainly have an impact on the industry as a whole, even in the US where automakers every year proudly announce new cars that get 18 miles a gallon!
Hawaiian governor David Ige announced at an energy summit in Honolulu last week (which I atteded) that not only will his state go for 100% renewable electricity generation by 2045, in only 30 years, but he will not replace current petroleum-fueled power plants with natural gas because it is a greenhouse gas and the money would be better spent on renewables. Electricity is expensive in Hawaii– a household can see a $400 or even $600 a month bill, because oil has been high and has to be imported. Putting solar panels on your roof can bring the bill down to $16 a month. So, something like 12-15% of residential homes already have solar panels, the highest proportion in the nation. Hawaii officials expect that proportion to triple in the coming decades. The US military has a big presence on the islands, and the army, navy and Marines are all very invested in renewables, as well, putting solar plants on bases.
Hawaii is also experimenting with new forms of renewables. Last week it opened the first small navy-funded ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC) plant , which generates energy by taking advantage of the difference between warmer and colder waters at various sea depths. The Scientific American explains: “The Makai plant is designed to draw in warmer ocean surface waters to vaporize ammonia, which boils and creates steam at a relatively low temperature. The steam spins a turbine and generates electricity. Cold water extracted from the ocean depths is then used to cool and condense the ammonia back into a liquid, which is then recycled in the system, known as a closed-loop system.” This plant is just an experiment, but demonstrates that the process can work.
A team at a South African university say they have made a breakthrough in the smale-scale generation of electricity using concentrated solar technology. This is a problem that Google engineers had been trying to solve but were stumped. There are some big concentrated solar plants, but they are relatively expensive. Allowing the technology to be affordably adopted on a small scale basis would be a revolution in places like Africa. The Guardian quotes a team member: “His team’s aim is to produce CSP technology that will be cheap and quick to install. “We are developing plonkable heliostats. Plonkable means that from factory to installation you can just drop them down on to the ground and they work.” So no costly cement, no highly-trained workforce, no wires, just two workers to lay out the steel frames on the ground and a streetlight-style central tower.”
If there were a Palestinian Donald Trump, he’d be fulminating against illegal immigrants swamping the Palestinian West Bank. And he’d be complaining that fully 1 in 6 of these undocumented squatters are Americans .
Since Americans have trouble understanding the basic facts of the situation, it is worthwhile underscoring that the United Nations General Assembly’s partition plan for British Mandate Palestine in 1947 did not include Gaza or the West Bank of the Jordan. Those territories were never awarded to Jewish settlers or later Israelis by any legitimate authority (even the UNGC is not an executive body and the Security Council should have signed off to grant real legitimacy in law). Israel militarily conquered Gaza and the West Bank in 1967 and have by now so altered the ways of life, economy and society of these occupied territories that the Occupation is illegal by the Hague Convention of 1907 and the Geneva Convention of 1949 (designed to prevent atrocities against occupied populations of the sort the Axis carried out during WW II).
It is strictly illegal for the occupying power to attempt to annex occupied territory or to transfer its citizens into militarily occupied territory. Mussolini’s Italy pulled that stunt with the parts of France he occupied during WW II. When you hear that someone has violated the Geneva Convention, that isn’t just an abstract matter. It means that someone is acting the way the dictators acted during the war, because it is that kind of lawless behavior the conventions were attempting to forestall from happening again.
Israel illegally annexed part of the Palestinian West Bank to its district of Jerusalem and then settled it with Israeli squatters. Am I comparing Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to Mussolini in Menton, France? If the shoe fits . . .
Outside the territory annexed to Jerusalem, there are at least 350,000 Israeli squatters who have usurped Palestinian land.
Some 60,000 of the squatters, today’s equivalent of Mussolini’s Black Shirts , are Americans, according to a new study.
Those American politicians like Mike Huckabee and Donald Trump, who make exaggerated and untrue statements against undocumented workers in the United States but who defend illegal Israeli immigration into the West Bank, are supreme hypocrites. The Israeli squatters, moreover, are often hostile and aggressive, excluding Palestinians from the townhouses they construct on stolen property.
Of the 1.2 million Palestinians living in the British Mandate of Palestine, Zionist settlers allowed in by the British attacked and expelled over half of them in 1948, about 720,000, from their homes. To this day, of the 11 million Palestinians, 7.1 million are still refugees or displaced. Many of them are stateless, lacking the basic rights bestowed by citizenship in a state.
Kanafani’s novel treats 3 Palestinian workers who cannot work in Lebanon, who decided to try to get to Kuwait, being smuggled in the back of a tanker truck. When the driver finally makes it to Kuwait, he looks inside the empty tank, only to find them dead.
Kanafani was murdered by a covert Israeli hit squad in 1972.
The dead in the real truck in Austria appear to have been mainly Syrian. Of today’s 22 million Syrians, 11 million are displaced or refugees (including many internally displaced).
But often the great refugee crises, in Afghanistan and elsewhere, end by the refugees returning home when peace descends.
The Palestinians don’t have that prospect. Their home has been stolen from them by the Israelis and they were unceremoniously dumped on the neighbors or in the West Bank or in the Gaza Strip. They are stateless. They are the original truck people.
““I think a really big question the Jewish community needs to ask itself, is how much at the forefront we put Holocaust education. Which is, of course, an important question to remember and to respect, but not over other things… We need to be reminded that hatred exists at all times and reminds us to be empathetic to other people that have experienced hatred also. Not used as a paranoid way of thinking that we are victims.”
She continues: “Sometimes it can be subverted to fear-mongering and like ‘Another Holocaust is going to happen’. We need to, of course, be aware that hatred exists, anti-Semitism exists against all sorts of people, not in the same way. I don’t mean to make false equivalences, we need it to serve as something that makes us empathetic to people rather than paranoid.”
She can pinpoint the moment that she came to this realisation – it was in 2007, on a trip to Rwanda to trek with gorillas. “We went to the museum there, and I was shocked that that [genocide] was going on while I was in school. We were learning only about the Holocaust and it was never mentioned and it was happening while I was in school. That is exactly the type of problem with the way it’s taught. I think it needs to be taught, and I can’t speak for everyone because this was my personal education.”
Her remarks did not imply that Rwanda was equivalent to the genocide of the Jews. She was saying that people who lived through a Holocaust should be extra sensitive to massacres of others, should highlight these further genocides– not because they are equivalent but because having been genocided should produce empathy.
She also warned against any fascist use of the Nazi genocide for the purposes of far-right nationalism, the nursing of grievances against others, the paranoid political discourse that sees every political challenge as 1938 and every oppositional movement as equivalent to Nazism.
She was talking not about history but about psychology, not about comparative statistics but about emotional maturity, not about past wrongs about about present-day moral compass.
We all know Likudniks who use the genocide as a get out of jail free card, who think they can do no wrong because, Holocaust. They are not unique. All massacres and genocides are available for both extreme nationalist and empathetic purposes. The difference does not lie in how many were tortured and killed. The difference lies in what we take away from it.
But the majority of the Japanese public is pacifist despite having been nuked by the Truman administration. (Two-thirds of the Japanese public reject Abe’s legislation to allow the Japanese army to be deployed for warfare abroad). Whatever their resentments about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, most Japanese cite them as a reason for which war in general must be avoided– i.e. in the sort of spiritually mature manner that Portman is calling for.
Note that I am not comparing the experience of civilians being nuclear-bombed to the Nazi genocide against Jews. They are incommensurate experiences, both productive of long-term historical trauma. The question is, how should we remember and deploy them in today’s world? The majority of the Japanese public has the right idea, in my view, while I think there is something pathological about the Likud Party (just as there is about the Japanese right wing). It is legitimate for Jews to be wary of racial bigotry directed against them by populist movements and to take what steps they can to protect themselves from it– that is a lesson of genocide. But to confuse protests against the illegal Israeli annexation of the Palestinian West Bank with racism is just naked nationalism, a demand to be freed from all critique or constraint because of past suffering. It is not the demand of a grown-up.
Portman is being prophetic in the tradition of the Hebrew Bible, where there were no voices more critical of ancient Jewry than the Isaiahs. She is calling us all to turn hate and trauma not to the purposes of aggrandizement and suspicion but to those of care for today’s victims. Those who cannot understand her need to check their ethics.
Gunmen from the Islamic State (IS) militant group have blown up a first century A.D. temple in the ancient city of Palmyra, Syrian government officials and a monitoring group have said.
However, there is confusion over when the detonation is thought to have taken place.
Syria’s directorate-general of antiquities and museums, Maamoun Abdelkarim, told the Syrian state news agency SANA late on August 23 that he had heard from local sources of the destruction of the Baal Shamin temple, built almost 2,000 years ago in 17 A.D.
Abdelkarim said Palmyra locals told him the militants had blown up the temple using a large amount of explosives but did not say when it had occurred.
Officials are currently trying to contact locals in Palmyra for further information, Abdelkarim told SANA.
The Britain-based monitoring group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the destruction happened around a month ago.
IS took control of Palmyra in May, prompting fears that the extremist group would destroy the UNESCO World Heritage site.
UNESCO chief Irina Bokova described the destruction of the temple as “a new war crime and an immense loss for the Syrian people and for humanity.”
Baal Shamin, whose name means Lord Of The Heavens, was the Phoenician god of storms and fertilizing rains. The temple in Palmyra was first begun in the early first century, and work on it continued until the third century.
IS gunmen last week publicly beheaded a retired 83-year-old antiquities scholar, Khalid al-Asaad, after holding him captive for weeks, reportedly because he refused to tell them where some of Palmyra’s most ancient artifacts had been hidden.
In Appalachia, explosions have leveled the mountain tops into perfect race tracks for Ryan Hensley’s all-terrain vehicle (ATV). At least, that’s how the 14-year-old sees the barren expanses of dirt that stretch for miles atop the hills surrounding his home in the former coal town of Whitesville, West Virginia.
“They’re going to blast that one next,” he says, pointing to a peak in the distance. He’s referring to a process known as “mountain-top removal,” in which coal companies use explosives to blast away hundreds of feet of rock in order to unearth underground seams of coal.
“And then it’ll be just blank space,” he adds. “Like the Taylor Swift song.”
Skinny and shirtless, Hensley looks no more than 11 or 12. His ribs and collarbones protrude from his taut skin. Dipping tobacco is tucked into his right cheek. He has a head of cropped blond curls that jog some memory of mine, but I can’t quite figure out what it is. He’s pointing at a peak named Coal River Mountain. These days, though, it’s known to activists here as “the Last Mountain,” as it’s the only ridgeline in this area that’s still largely intact.
We continue picking our way along a path on topless Kayford “Mountain,” a few miles from Hensley’s hometown (population 514, according to the 2010 census), as he resumes chronicling his adventures on ATVs. Nearby is the Seng Creek mine, still semi-active and one of Hensley’s favorite racing spots. Active mines are always the best race tracks, he assures me, since you get the added thrill of outrunning security guards and watching explosions, which sound, he tells me, like hundreds of dump trucks emptying their loads all at once.
As we walk, we’re careful to step over crevices known as “mine cracks” — deep narrow drops into the earth most often formed by the caving in of old underground mines. Hensley stops to peer into one crack filled with broken Bud Lite bottles and I joke that it leads straight through to China.
But Hensley knows better. At his young age, he’s already an expert on everything about mountain-top removal: how companies blast the peaks with ammonium nitrate and fuel oil — the same chemical combination that Timothy McVeigh used to detonate the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995. He knows that the process fills the air with toxic coal dust, benzene, and carbon monoxide, while contaminating nearby streams with arsenic.
However, Hensley doesn’t know and can hardly imagine what this region — his home — was like before the peaks were removed. “I wasn’t alive when those mountains were there,” he observes a few hours later. And even though the industry in West Virginia is in the grips of an unprecedented collapse that threatens to dethrone King Coal once and for all, this 14-year-old and all the other children growing up in the shadow of these “blank spaces” will never see the decapitated peaks return to thickly forested mountain tops.
The King Is Dead
In the first half of this year, at least six domestic coal companies filed for bankruptcy. In February, West Virginia’s Covington Coal fell, followed by Xinergy and Grass Creek Coal in April, Patriot and Birmingham Coal & Coke in May, and A&M Coal in June. In August came the biggest announcement of all: the $10-billion coal giant Alpha Natural Resources had entered the bankruptcy sweepstakes, too.
Only four years earlier, Alpha had secured its position as one of the world’s largest coal outfits by purchasing the Appalachian company Massey Energy for $7 billion and expanding its operations to 60 mines, many in Appalachia. But its reign would prove short-lived. The price of coal has been plummeting as utility companies shift to significantly cheaper shale gas, extracted through the drilling process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to produce power. This April, for the first time since the U.S. Energy Information Administration began collecting data in 1973, gas surpassed coal as the nation’s number one producer of energy.
By late July, the New York Stock Exchange announced that it had suspended trading of Alpha Natural Resources’ stock because it was worth next to nothing.
In August, the inevitable occurred. Alpha submitted a bankruptcy filing which read in part: “The unprecedented changes facing the coal industry run deep and are occurring at a frenetic and unpredictable pace…The U.S. coal industry as currently structured is unsustainable.”
By now, the funeral was underway and the first obituaries were appearing. Headlines in various papers not only announced Alpha’s demise, but offered autopsies for the entire industry. As the New York Times put it in its headline three days after the filing: “King Coal, Long Besieged, Is Deposed by the Market.”
Causes of death: the explosion of cheap natural gas, the rising costs of new environmental and worker safety regulations, and a simple geological reality — the industry has already mined out the majority of all economically recoverable coal.
This energy version of regime change had been long in the making. The coalfields are filled with now-abandoned company towns, where the industry once employed hundreds of thousands of men to work in underground mines. The extraction process generated massive wealth, at least for the mine owners. In the late 1880s, Bramwell, West Virginia, was reputedly home to the highest concentration of millionaires per capita of any town in the United States. Today, its high school still boasts of that legacy through its teams’ nickname: the Bramwell Millionaires.
In the second half of the twentieth century, many of those towns all but evaporated as the industry turned to strip mining, a mechanized process that uses heavy machinery rather than muscle power to carve away rock and expose seams of coal running along hillsides. The town of Kayford, which sits at the base of its namesake mountain, is one such example. Once a company town for men employed in the mines, its main road is now lined only with poplars, sycamores, and basswood, a few poured-concrete foundations, and a crumbling single-story brick wall. The town’s last building is said to have burned down toward the end of the 1970s.
The former town is still, however, home to an active strip mine called Alpha’s Republic #1, which employs few people but has managed to extract a considerable amount of coal. In 2012, organizers with the climate justice group Mountain Justice formed a human blockade to shut down work traffic going in and out of the site. It was just one of dozens and dozens of blockades, “tree-sits,” and other direct actions Mountain Justice has executed as part of a decade-long campaign, which has won regulatory improvements to reduce water contamination, shielded schools in the coalfields from the worst health impacts of mining, moderated flooding caused by that mining, and demanded the industry do more to replant trees and grasses on old mine sites. That campaign also helped inspire almost all the major environmental activism in the nation today — from the university divestment movement to tree sits in Texas to block the Keystone XL pipeline to the arrest this month of people seeking to halt the construction of the first commercial tar sands mine in this country.
In many ways, however, Mountain Justice’s protests were among the least extreme in the state’s long history of organizing. Drive farther up the mountain and you’ll find concrete bunkers built by hired guns from the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency sent in to quell a powerful miner’s strike in 1912-1913. Less than 10 years later, as many as 10,000 armed miners from West Virginia would launch the largest labor uprising in the nation’s history.
The Mountains at the Center of the World
Even higher up the mountain, past the bunkers, lies Stanley Heirs Park, a 50-acre swath of land surrounded by the final stage of coal extraction: mountain-top removal.
In the 1970s, as more and more of the readily available coal was extracted from West Virginia’s underground mines and ridge lines, companies decided to take strip mining to its logical conclusion: they would simply blast away the entire tops of mountains to get at the remaining coal. The results are visible in the flattened, barren mines that surround the park, including the Seng Creek mine where Ryan Hensley likes to ride his ATV.
Hensley and dozens of others converged here for an annual Fourth of July celebration, an event hosted by the family of the late Larry Gibson, a prominent organizer against mountain-top removal. His family has lived here on Kayford Mountain since the late 1700s and this section alone has remained unblasted because Gibson turned the family plot into a land trust in order to fend off the industry.
Before his death in 2012, Gibson was much hated in the area for taking on the coal companies, so his friends and neighbors tell me as we share fried chicken and Budweiser. His house was riddled with bullets. His dogs were poisoned or shot. But he succeeded in protecting at least his small plot of land from the explosives. Now, as his family points out, the land that used to lie in the shadow of surrounding taller peaks has become, after 30 years of mountain-top removal, the highest site in the area.
Few know more about the impact of the mining industry than Elise Keaton, a 30-something native West Virginian with the enthusiastic, commanding voice of a camp counselor. Years ago, she did what many of the state’s residents do if they can: she left. She earned a law degree in Texas and later helped with disaster relief in post-Katrina New Orleans.
“But being from West Virginia is like having a fishhook in your heart,” she tells me. So she returned and, following Gibson’s death, took over the role of educating newcomers about Kayford. Standing at the edge of the Seng Creek mine, owned by the now bankrupt coal company Patriot, Keaton explains that the surrounding mountain peaks have been reduced by at least 400 feet, if not more. The removed earth — known in industry parlance as the “overburden” — was dumped into the nearby valleys, where it covered streams, reducing the region’s fresh water supply.
Before coal companies came along, Appalachia had been “burdened” by these mountains for more than 400 million years. They were formed by the same collision of tectonic plates that produced the single supercontinent Pangea. The Appalachian mountain range then lay at the heart of the world’s only unified landmass.
Today, the unblasted sections of West Virginia’s mountains are blanketed by a temperate forest so diverse that researchers are still discovering new species, including a reddish-orange crayfish that was plucked out of the water in 2013 and dubbed Cambarus hatfieldi — a Latin play on the name of the famed West Virginia family, the Hatfields, who feuded with their neighbors across the river in Kentucky, the McCoys.
Keaton recently invited a forest expert to visit Kayford Mountain and survey the decommissioned mines. The coal companies have made only the most meager efforts to reclaim this devastated land by planting quick-growth pine trees, black locust, grass seed, and other plants that can live with high levels of acids in the soil. Keaton wanted to know how long it would take for these stands of identical pines to be transformed into a diverse rainforest, so she took the expert to one of the ridges and asked him when the real forest would grow back.
“And he said,” Elise recalled, “‘About 100 million years.’”
Before his death, Gibson dubbed the entrance to the Seng Creek mine “Hell’s Gate,” since for many years this site looked out across a vast expanse of gray broken only by the movements of massive machines and those explosions, which occurred every day of the year. A writer for Smithsonian Magazine who visited Kayford in 2009, while this mine was still being blasted frequently, wrote that “entering a mountaintop site is like crossing into a war zone.”
Now, few are the explosions at Seng Creek, but the nothingness remains.
There’s almost no sound down in the mine itself except for the muffled rush of the wind unshielded by trees. Heaps of sandstone and fragmented shale rock stretch for what looks like miles. Much of the surface dirt has been packed down into undulating wide roads by the giant wheels of coal trucks. Most of the birds long ago left this desolate spot, although you can hear the occasional singing of meadowlarks from nearby reclamation sites. (“We’ve never had meadow larks here before,” Keaton later tells me, as she stands on a nearby ridge overlooking a decommissioned mine seeded with grass. “But this is more like a meadow now.”)
I walk to the far edge of the mine, sit down, and peer into some of the cylindrical holes, about 11 inches in diameter, that workers once drilled into the shale rock as places to pack full of ammonium nitrate. I recall what one of the festival’s musicians said about coal — that he liked to think of it as old sunlight trapped inside rocks as long decomposed organic matter. Maybe it would be simpler, he added, just to use new sunlight, as the weekend’s solar-powered event was, in fact, doing.
Finally, hours later, I conclude that there is very little else to be written, at least by me, at the edge of a mountain top that’s been transformed into blank, dead space. After all, I’m new to West Virginia, which gives me something in common with Ryan Hensley: I never saw the mountains here, either. And I never will.
The Life That’s Left
This state’s longest-serving governor once famously asked: “Why does everything bad happen to West Virginia?”
His question gibed well with the sense I ran into that the state’s history is a tragic one and that the coal industry’s collapse is its grim final act. Indeed, it’s unclear just what West Virginia’s future will hold. Coal has been the region’s mono-industry for so long that it’s hard to imagine anything else. Elise Keaton points out that the region’s rich coalfields were a major part of the reason President Abraham Lincoln approved a controversial Act of Congress in 1863 to carve out West Virginia as a new state. It was one of only two states created in the midst of the Civil War and even some of Lincoln’s advisors deemed the move unconstitutional. But annexing the region was militarily expedient. It gave the north all those rich coalfields and the prized Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, which hauled Union soldiers south to the front lines and Appalachian coal north from Charleston to stations in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York City.
In other words, West Virginia was created, as Keaton puts it, as a resource colony.
Perhaps, in the end, the death of coal will spell not doom but liberation for the state, freeing it from the energy needs of the rest of the nation. These days, as the coal industry crumbles, West Virginians are rallying in support of what’s being called “transition work” — the building, that is, of a new economy based on agriculture, local arts, wineries, and the like.
Indeed, if West Virginia is able to build these alternative economies, if the state is able to do more than simply pivot from being a coal colony to becoming a shale gas supplier, it will provide evidence that any region can be transformed as the planet’s industrialized nations hurtle into a post-fossil fuel future, kicking and screaming every step of the way.
Such a transition will require not only building anew, but also healing old wounds.
Hours later, Hensley begins pleading for one more expedition in Stanley Heirs Park, so we set off for Hell’s Gate with a handful of others. As we walk, I suddenly realize just whom his cropped blond hair, which has felt so eerily familiar, brought to mind: a young worker I met in North Dakota’s fracking fields in the summer of 2014, shortly before he was beaten to death outside a bar. In that moment of recognition, I find myself pleased that Hensley will have, at best, a slim chance of finding a coal job when he’s older, but then I begin to worry about where the need for work will carry him if new industries haven’t sprung up in time.
Another member of our group is Charles Lee Williams, a former miner who lives a few miles away. Forty-six years old, Williams has a round head and small, deep-set blue eyes. He’s a man who knows about death in the coalfields better than most. He worked for coal giant Massey Energy until 2010, when a series of explosions ripped through subterranean tunnels at his worksite killing 29 of his co-workers — and nearly getting him, too. The force of the blasts, he tells me, was so powerful that it felt as if his skull were being sucked out of his head.
Now, Williams spends most nights dreaming of the ghosts of those men. He sought treatment once for the resulting PTSD, but the pills prescribed for him only seemed to make the nightmares worse. In them, he tells me, his former co-workers usually appear headless.
After we’ve returned from Hell’s Gate, Williams confesses that it’s his first time surveying a mountain-top removal site from above — despite living so close to mines that the explosions sometimes shake his house.
“It feels like there’s nothing alive left over there,” he says. Then he pauses and adds, “That’s what it feels like in the mornings, too. That there ain’t no life left in me, neither.”
Laura Gottesdiener is a freelance journalist and a news producer with Democracy Now! The author of A Dream Foreclosed: Black America and the Fight for a Place to Call Home, her writing has appeared in Mother Jones, Al Jazeera, Guernica, Playboy, Rolling Stone, and frequently at TomDispatch. Special thanks on this piece go to filmmaker Jordan Freeman and Mathew Louis-Rosenberg.
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