A Response to The Last Mountain

The documentary, The Last Mountain, offers a rich case in which environmental values can be examined – both in the way expressed values oppose and intersect each other. As the fight for Coal River Mountain’s future develops throughout the film, two obvious groups of stakeholders emerge – those who believe Coal River Mountain should be strip-mined for its resources, and those who are working to prevent the destruction of the mountain. The opposition of the camps is another story of a cornucopian and environmentalist battle. However, the story in The Last Mountain, begs an analysis to understand the layers of values which exist under the environmentalist and cornucopian umbrellas, and how these more specific values motivate stakeholders in the film. And so follows such an analysis, first for the pro-Coal River Mountain extraction cornucopians, and then for the environmentalists working to preserve the mountain. The analysis reveals that both camps work towards demonstrating values around the virtues of environmentalism, and do so strategically, albeit under very different motivations.

The companies and politicians who are pro-coal paint themselves as pro-environment market liberals and institutionalists, responding to market incentives and protecting the environment in a manner that is best for the economy. However, the plans and regulations set out for the extractionists are ignored – with Massey Coal collecting hundreds of thousands of environmental penalties and ignoring all of them – so that a cornocupian value system is clear in the way economics and policies are manipulated, and any shroud of environmentalist values is illusory. In its place administrative rationalism is exhibited often by the cornocupians, allowing elite theory to propagate in West Virginia’s Appalachia. The heads of Massey Coal and policy makers (embodied by the governor in the film) claimed that the government was doing what was best for the economy and therefore the people. The accepted reasoning provided an avenue of reason and buffer of protection for elites to act in their own interest. Cornocupians also attempted to put on promethean hats in the name of the environment, advertising that coal is the cleanest form of energy and that today’s technology allows the effect of strip-mining to be marginal so that ecosystems can be restored. The film demonstrates that these values are also illusory, flyovers of “restored mountains” and exposing the hidden realities of destroyed coal communities reveal that if the purported technology is available, coal companies are not using it. The effort to dress cornucopians as environmentalists is most clearly illustrated when Bobby Kennedy interviews a representative of the coal industry who, in defense of the industry, repeatedly refers to the workers as the country’s real practicing environmentalists.

Coal workers included, the coal communities at the root of America’s consumption face extreme margnizalition – as social greens would predict. And so a social green perspective is one of the most salient values driving activists in the Coal River basin as they connect their suffering and inequality to a larger picture of consumption in America. One of the leading activists summarizes the breadth of this relationship: “Everybody is connected to coal…everybody is causing this and everybody is allowing it.” Survivalism is the second value system most clearly motivating community members protecting Coal River Mountain. They make the point clear that they are not just “tree-huggers” working to save a mountain, they are community members working to preserve their homes and protect their families – their health is at stake. Further, to push past environmentalist stereotypes, many of the protestors paint themselves as democratic pragmatists. Bobby Kennedy explains that these are a people who have been deprived in their right to democracy and so much of the protest and non-violent civil discourse is a reaction to this deprivation.  Democratic Pragmatism is seen perhaps most clearly in the scene where unorthodox activists, from children to grandmas in wheelchairs, are dragged out of the capitol building by police amidst the struggle to have their voice heard.

The film presents stakeholders beyond community members. These protestors from around the country come to protect Coal River Mountain with ecological modernization values and messages in tote. They highlight a fallacy of capitalist markets and policies which are destroying environments like Coal River Mountain all over the country. They argue if political economies are not restructured to value the environment, such destruction will continue to go unchecked. The resolution in the film becomes activists endorsing a sustainable development value system. The Coal River Mountain community pushes for the mountain to be utilized for wind power rather than strip mining. It is ironically the solution that, while pushing out coal companies, will allow former coal workers to shed illusions and be employed as legitimate practicing environmentalists.

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