July 9, 2012

Refocusing: After Coal

Do you ever feel like you are trying to take part in five campaigns at once? Juggling more each day, and finishing fewer tasks than ever? I know I am not alone. This year, I took a leap back from organizing, wearing a bathrobe called burn out. I never lost hope in making change, but questioned the work I was doing: it seemed scattered, then sloppy, and eventually disheartened. Still, I wanted to find something to sink into, something that combined my interest in film with my love of mountains. Perhaps something rejuvenating. Spoiler alert: I lucked out. I chose a focus once I learned about After Coal.

After Coal: Welsh and Appalachian Mining Communities, is a film project exploring the transition from coal in Appalachia and in South Wales. Both regions were comprised of rich reserves and union loyal miners as energy demand grew exponentially. In the 1970’s, scholars Helen Lewis and John Gaventa, along with filmmaker Richard Greatrex, began an exchange between Welsh and Appalachian coal fields with the increasingly mobile medium of film. After Coal builds on contemporary stories in each coalfield while weaving in historical context.

The project’s focus on a transition is rampant across continents and small island developing states (SIDS). I see communities back home struggle with a new boom/bust cycle in fracking, read about the conundrum of coal exports, and revisit memories from COP17, where Ambassador Marlene Moses reminds me of our generation's role in pushing for a better future. All of this swirls in my head while I comb through b-roll of dilapidated coal towns in Kentucky and reclamation efforts in Wales.

I have to keep remembering there is no single solution. Facing the end of fossil fuels will truly require the efforts of many, like spokes on a bicycle wheel. We need bleeding hearts (like myself), tech savvy solutionaries (my current roommate), pragmatic planners, dancing prescribed by Emma Goldman adherents, and more.

Carl Shoupe, a retired coal miner from Harlan County, Kentucky, highlights another crucial element in moving away from fossil fuels. He expressed:

We [Appalachians] want our own fingers in the pie. Not some outside group, you see, that’s the problem with this coal. When the coal goes out of here, the money goes out of here.

Community driven solutions are a focus of After Coal, and are a source of hope, in my opinion. While the hollows of Kentucky and valleys of South Wales may never bustle as they did during the coal boom, rich landscapes and culture remain. Call me an emotional pack rat, but moving to a coal free future does not mean shrugging off the history. Industries may hold the power to exploit land and people, but they shouldn’t be able to eliminate communities without a fight. What I appreciate about this documentary is its careful incorporation of history into the story of a modern tipping point. And, on a microscopic level, helping weave the interviews together has helped me out of a considerable slump.

In emerging from a year of “slacktivism”, I feel I’m carving out a niche in film work. It’s much different from organizing a rally or speaking at a hearing, but it’s a strand of work I never considered before. This project is far from simple, but has helped show me how rewarding it can be to commit to a project, to see it through a summer and hopefully beyond. So, if you’ve read this far, I must close by asking two things of you:

1. Check out the videos we’ve put together this month, as production continues on After Coal!

2. Find your role in changing the world, and for everyone’s sake, pursue it.