Janisse Ray, my friend and a writer and an activist whom I consider a national treasure, has written a powerful essay, “From Ashes Such as These, What can Rise?”, about the attempt by waste disposal giant Republic Services to use the regional landfill here in Wayne County as a coal ash dump.
In exposing the depths of the corrupt machinations and big money behind this attempt, her article reveals much more than a poor county with challenged local governance being exploited by a powerful corporation. And it reveals more than just the fact that Big Coal and Big Power and Big Money don’t give a rip about rural America.
Both of which are certainly true and truly revealed in her article.
Her article also shows what can happen when a community decides to speak up in its own behalf. And how difficult it can be to win against the Big Boys – even when everyone, or apparently nearly everyone, is opposed to them. It shows the true horrors that coal in every aspect of its life (other than deep underground where it belongs) poses for us.
But Janisse goes beyond all that, ranging deep and wide in the essay, showing how much love for the natural world – and how much intelligence – lives in these people in the Deep South, and what it is that we really stand to lose here. She buries the knife deep in our hearts with personal stories of what we’ve already lost in rural life, and makes a passionate cry for the salvation of the South, for the resurgence of rural America.
This is an essay that needs to be read widely in America today, because though we poor rural communities in the South are prime targets, we are not alone. Everyone is vulnerable and likely to be victimized in this game.
But there’s a deeper reason we all need to read this essay. A deeper reason we need to consider this whole issue… deeply.
Us vs. Them
I awoke in the middle of the night – which is not so unusual for me, but this night, I could not stop thinking about coal ash, the death of the flatlands, and the arrogance of power that we face; this little story playing out in our tiny, poor county is really the whole story. The big story. The Old Story. The story of an industrial/post-industrial/post-post-industrial world gone rogue.
Yes, we are engaged in a penultimate battle here in Wayne County: Us, the rural community, vs. Them, the life-destroying Agents of Death — Big Coal, Big Power, Big Waste. Corporate America.
That’s how the battle lines are drawn. And that is a battle we can only lose.
We face accusations of selfish, NIMBY-style hypocrisy in this fight, perhaps justly, because we all enjoy the lifestyle, the products, the ease that cheap energy provides. And someone has to pay the price.
So – if we only win that battle, a win that simply forces Them to dump their poison “somewhere else”, then it will be a hollow victory.
Yes, on this immediate issue, the dumping of toxic waste in our landfill, we need to win. And By Whatever Means Necessary. Because there is truly more at stake here than our own comfort. Ecosystems, aquifers, the biosphere. A lot. Ultimately, this is a battle in the War for the survival of human life on this planet.
So in truth, we are bound by moral decency and our common humanity to oppose coal ash. We are bound because coal ash is where it all ends up. Someone, somewhere has to stand up and say, “No more.” If we can do that, and by it inspire the other target communities across the land to stand up and refuse to accept coal ash, what will Big Energy do?
If that happens, eventually, the truth will dawn on everyone that we just can’t keep making coal ash. If there’s nowhere to put it safely, then we just must stop digging coal out of the ground and burning it. That may mean we have to pay more for our electricity. It may mean we must reduce our consumption of energy.
In fact, it clearly does mean we must reduce our consumption of everything.
Aye, and there’s the rub.
So, in the long run, the battle is Us vs. Us.
If we can see through all the layers of pain, confusion and anger that cloud it, then that is a battle we could win. In fact, that is the War, the War for human survival, and it can be won only by realizing that it’s Us vs. Us, transcending the formulation that demonizes those ‘others’ and lays all the blame on them for this situation.
It’s Us, the Georgia Power/Southern Company customers who love our cheap power, it’s Us, consumers across America, across the continent and around the world, who are responsible for the existence of this coal ash, and only as we realize this and confront our own complicity, our own addictions to power, to ease, to comfort, to self will the causes for this War cease.