Hiram College

Since we finally broke ground on the TREE House a couple of weeks ago, I’ve been reflecting more than usual on the value of this project and what this endeavor says about Hiram. Debbie was right when she wrote last week that we – EVST faculty – had no clue what we were in for when we proposed the TREE House two years ago. But what we did know was that this is important. I don’t mean that it is important to save the college a little money on utilities, give students a creative learning space, and show the world Hiram College is in the sustainability game. I mean important: as in our future depends on projects like this. We – political leaders, business people, the insurance industry, school children, most all of us — know that we live on a finite planet with finite resources. We know that our biosphere provides for us exceptional goods and services that have made our lives not just possible but joyful. Here in this world we have fresh water, tomatoes, wheat, lobster, coffee, cherries, and chocolate; wool, silk, clay, thatch, and wood. Here in this world we have ridiculous animals like the aye-aye and the keel-billed toucan to challenge our understanding, small healthy children to infect us with the giggles, and mountains and oceans to connect us with our gods. We know it’s special, but we don’t live like it is.

I think that if I want you to really get what I’m saying when I use the word “important,” I will have to reveal a bit of my soul.  I was born with a gentle heart and I shelter it as best I can. But there are times when I don’t feel so gentle. Sometimes I feel like raging in the streets. But I don’t – because my message would be: HEY! BE GENTLER! Not really a message that lends itself to loud confrontation. But maybe, just this once, I’ll get a little bit in your face: we are brutalizing our biosphere and ourselves.  This is not just me talking.  The facts speak for themselves; here’s just a taste of the evidence:

Last week one American and 27 Afghans died. In coal mining accidents.

  • September 12, 2013: Campbell County, Wyoming – one miner killed; three severely burned in a coal dust fire.
  • September 15, 2013: Ruyi Du Ab district, Samangan province – 27 miners killed in a coal mine collapse.

I wish I could tell you this was some weird anomaly, but I don’t want to lie.

  • Just in August this year, three more coal miners died in Poland and another 14 in India.
  • So far this year, three miners have died in West Virginia.
  • We know coal mining accidents in China are frequent, although accurate numbers are hard to come by.
  • In 2010, when 29 coal miners died at the Upper Big Branch disaster in West Virginia, 29 also died in another mine on the other side of the world in New Zealand.

In some places, where the geology is right, we can avoid the direct “casualties” of subsurface mining and employ enormous, house-sized machines to chew up the earth and capture coal from above. Surface mining gives us the illusion of progress – far fewer accidental mining deaths. But this, too, is a violence we perpetrate on the ecosphere, and on our human kin. Have you seen mountaintop removal in the southern Appalachian Mountains? Can you fathom what it is to blow up a mountain that has been in existence for 480 million years – 2400 TIMES LONGER THAN OUR SPECIES? Written in the rocks of the southern Appalachians, geologists can read 1 billion years of history.

For a mere fraction of our energy needs, we have permanently scarred these ancient giants on a scale that can be detected in satellite imagery.  Twenty years of destroying mountains adds up to coal tonnage that would satisfy America’s needs for just two years!…and the destruction of an area roughly equivalent to that of the Great Smokey Mountains National Park1. To get the coal out of the mountain, all the rubble is pushed over into valleys destroying hundreds of miles of streams and some of the richest biodiversity in North America. The carbon impact of this practice is off the charts. The toll on human communities—on our neighbors—is enough to make you cry.

The year after the Upper Big Branch disaster and Deep Water Horizon (11 dead), I took a group of Hiram students south to witness spring migration and the wave of birds arriving on the northern shores of the Gulf of Mexico then moving north in a riot of color along the Appalachian Mountains. The trip was designed to reveal the crazy wonder of migration – birds moving thousands of miles fueled by fat, guided by complex navigation systems, connecting tropics with tundra.

But we couldn’t see the birds without also hearing stories of loss and fear, without registering the enormity of what we have done, what we continue to do to our earth, our people. We stood one afternoon on Kayford Mountain in West Virginia with the late Larry Gibson. Larry talked with us about protecting his mountain home, what it cost him not to sell his mountain so that it could be stripped for coal. (It cost a lot.  Threats of violence, personal relationships, and more.) We looked out over what was left of the neighboring mountain — an occupied, violated land, guarded by men with radios and cameras against a gentle man who would not give up. Behind us, on Gibson’s land, a Summer Tanager sang.

We were all thinking: Mr. Gibson, why do you fight this impossible battle?  We didn’t have to ask.

Larry said: “I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t try.”

He was right, you know.  We spend far too much of what is most precious to power our lives. Sustainability can’t just be something we do some day. It can’t just be for those who have enough disposable income. We’ve got to get moving now, all of us. And that’s what I hope the TREE House will help us do by modelling sustainable practices we can all employ in our everyday lives.

So, HEY! BE GENTLER!  Save electricity = save mountains = save lives.  It’s that important.


1“The Environmental Price Tag on a Ton of Mountaintop Removal Coal,” Brian D. Lutz, Emily S. Bernhardt, William H. Schlesinger. PLOS ONE, September 12, 2013. DOI:http://dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0073203.