Mountain top removal, coal mining in tiger reserves, how can resilient systems be pro-growth?

I’ve enjoyed a few great conversations with Wendell Berry over the years.  One was at a club in Austin where we ate dinner and enjoyed a quiet country band.  Others have been in Kentucky beginning in the early 80s and including one last year when we also visited the Berry Center in his beloved Henry County.  He has visited Meadowcreek, though not since he began his quixotic campaign against mountain top removal.

miningchart_lgAnything close to mountain top removal is a crime in New York, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine and should be everywhere.  But it goes on no matter what we think.  There are always plenty of people who can figure out how to pay off or trick politicians so they can destroy the environment.

Mountaintop removal coal mining is responsible for the burial of almost 2,000 miles of Appalachian streams, the leveling of over 500 Appalachian mountaintops, and the ecological devastation of over 800 square miles of one of the most bio-diverse regions of our planet.

But in most states where mountaintop removal coal is used to generate electricity, the actual mining is not taking place. The connection between flipping on a light switch and the blasting of one of the world’s oldest mountains is not one many consumers make.  The top 2 consumers of mountaintop removal coal (Georgia and North Carolina) are seeing strong efforts  to stop use of mountaintop removal coal. Bills have even been introduced to ban the use mountaintop removal coal in those states.

But West Virginia and Kentucky, where most of the mountains are being leveled, are controlled by  the coal barons.  One, West Virginia’s only billionaire, Jim Justice (not the same as Justice Jim who was a powerful segregationist in Arkansas and committed suicide in 2010)  seems to have the inside track to being the next Governor of West Virginia.

Jim Justice and his ilk say: Let the complete leveling of West Virginia begin.  West Virginia will soon be as flat as Kansas.  Such a flat area so close to DC will be a fine place for shopping malls, apartment buildings, and factories.  There is already a morning train service with three stops in West Virginia (Harpers Ferry, Duffields and Martinsburg) which after an hour and a half ride gets you to DC about the time your Senator arrives in his office.

Wendell’s Kentucky and Justice’s West Virginia will never pass an anti-mountain top removal law because such laws are framed as anti-jobs and Eastern liberal carpet-bagging.  Just as Arkansas will never pass a law limiting the power of Tyson to destroy small meat packers, no matter what other states do.

I hate to be a pessimist and I do know anything is possible.  A small committed group of believers can perform miracles.  But I also know you don’t win by taking these guys head on.  You have to be a little subtle, sneaky, and fight fire with fire.  Unless all you want to do is raise money from foundations who like your cause.  Then you take the fight to Washington and try to get Obama to stop it.  He won’t.

Mountain top removal makes Chinese environmental destruction look like child’s play.  In China, many mountains are as sacred as can be in an officially atheistic country.  But when you have nunneries and monasteries and holy caves dotting the sides of the mountains, its hard for the big equipment of industrial China to come in and take over.

Maybe we need some monasteries and holy sites on top of each mountain in West Virginia and Kentucky.  Maybe that would stop the fools.

The irony of my fervent hatred of mountain top removal and pity for those who do it is that resilience research is pro-growth.  In some circles I run in, saying you are pro-growth is like admitting that the Devil is your friend and advisor.  Those ill-informed, but passionate environmental advocates don’t distinguish between biological growth and industrial growth.

I ran across a great illustration the other day of how sweet talking “journalists” totally miss the boat, despite their good intentions.  Following is a short paraphrase of part of his book and how it relates to understanding the relationship of growth and progress, environment and ecological resilience.

In January 2011 India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was upset. He had been asking his environment minister to meet a number of businessmen whose projects had been held up on environmental grounds—Ajit Gulabchand whose Lavasa project had been stopped mid-track on belated environmental objections; Naveen Jindal who wanted a coal mine project cleared in what had been declared a no-go area for mining; and others like them. Jairam Ramesh, the minister concerned, had duly met all of them, but found he could not bring himself to clear things like mining in the middle of a tiger reserve. Why does the PM send only businessmen to me, and never anyone who speaks for the environment, Ramesh had wondered to himself.

Singh called Ramesh aside after a cabinet meeting, to give him a talking to. An economy could move forward only on the basis of the animal spirits of its businessmen, he said. Productive forces had to be allowed freedom, or economic growth would suffer. Ramesh defended his record: he was clearing more than 95 per cent of the industrial projects that came to his ministry, and clearing them within the stipulated time. He was stopping only those that involved serious environmental issues or violations. But the prime minister had his own problems: the press and the Opposition had been criticizing his government for what they called policy paralysis. One way to deal with the criticism was to approve projects that were stuck for want of clearances, and he wanted to get things moving.

Some months later, when the environment ministry continued to stand in the way of projects involving influential businessmen, Singh called Ramesh and gave him a full-scale dressing-down. He couldn’t get ‘men from Mars’ to run things the way Ramesh wanted them, he said. The country was ‘in a stage of primitive capital accumulation’, and compromises had to be made. He went on to say that he was at the fag end of his life and did not want to see economic growth suffer or the India story come to an end. ‘We can’t have European standards,’ he declared as he asked Ramesh to be realistic. Finally, he warned that if there were very tight environmental rules, the environment ministry would end up creating a ‘new kind of licence–permit raj’.

What most political leaders in India, China, West Virginia and Kentucky fail to realize is that countries which do best on such measures as the Environmental Performance Index (EPI) are the rich ones, while the poor countries do poorly.

The index looks at two broad concepts. ‘Environmental health’ measures the protection of human health from environment-caused harm; and ‘ecosystem vitality’ measures ecosystem protection and resource management. Since rich countries have better air quality, better and cleaner water supply, and superior resource management, they score better on the EPI. India in 2014 ranked 155th out of 177 countries. China was 118th, and the United States was 33rd while Australia, Switzerland, Germany and Sweden were in the top ten.

The most powerful Indian politicians, beginning with Indira Gandhi have long believed, that ‘the environment cannot be improved in conditions of poverty.’

Manmohan Singh  was willing to ‘exploit man and earth’ in the interest of capital accumulation through the use of non-‘European’ environmental standards. Ramesh was assigned to another ministry after a cabinet reshuffle, and the extent of the forest areas that had been declared ‘no go’ for mining was sharply reduced.

The succeeding Modi government reduced the area even further, to thirty-five coal blocks out of 793, with what was now called the ‘inviolate’ area less than 8 per cent of the original 12,006 sq km assessed in 2010.

Standing in opposition to this approach, environmentalists have stressed that it is industrial development that pollutes air and water, motor transport that emits carbon gases, causing global warming, and excessive application of pesticides and chemical fertilizers that ruin the soil and also cause health problems. Far from the poor being ‘polluters’, they are the ones doing the least environmental damage; it is those who ‘exploit man and earth’ who have laid much greater claims on the earth’s resources.

When the Modi government swept to power in the summer of 2014, its priorities were clear: get stalled projects moving so that investment could be revived and the economy nudged to pick up speed. The new environment minister, Prakash Javadekar, showed very quickly that he was no Jairam Ramesh clone. The rules were modified to reduce the scope for public hearings (required before projects got cleared); more powers were given to states to clear projects; and a committee of former bureaucrats, armed with loose terms of reference, recommended rewriting the country’s environment protection laws. The signs were that environmental clearance requirements for projects would be diluted, decentralized and rendered less effective.

A coal mining project in Maharashtra’s Chandrapur area, which Ramesh had rejected because it was located in a tiger reserve, now got the green signal after it went through some modification.

So our vaunted politicians, elected by the collective wisdom of the people, love mountain top removal for coal, love mining tiger reserves for coal.  They love it because they love the money the greedy industrialists give them.  It’s fun to fly in private planes.  Only rich people have such planes, so you have to be buddies with the rich folk if you want the planes and the golfing and the Super Bowl tickets and if you hope to avoid them letting their PR machines loose against you.

They are experts at molding mass opinion.  We don’t even realize they are doing it.  We just click on the “news” stories which pop up on Facebook and before we know it we are convinced, or scared, and another threat is removed.

The global hegemony of ecological destroyion is increasing daily and exponentially.

But just being against them will never win.  Creative destruction tells us that the only want to supplant an existing system is to create a new, more innovative, more resilient system.  Ecological resilience research shows us how to create a new economy vastly superior to the extractive, industrialist economy.

Spreading knowledge of ecological resilience is the only way to counter this plague.  Nothing else is working.  Ecological resilience research shows clearly that growth is natural and good, as long as it is ecologically sound.  We don’t have to be Luddites.  We don’t have to be anti-growth.  We do have to use ecological resilience research to convince the uninformed politicians to stand up to the greedy bastards who are hastening the destruction of our countries.  They will be able to stand up because there is a new system to which they can pledge allegiance.


The 2014 EPI was formally released in Davos, Switzerland, at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum on January 25, 2014. These are the result of collaboration between the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy (YCELP) and the Columbia University Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN). The Interactive Website for the 2014 EPI is at