Suggestion — October 4, 2013, 2:30 pm

The End of Illth

In search of an economy that won’t kill us

A coal miner two days after the April 5, 2010, explosion at Massey Energy Company's Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, West Virginia. © AP Photo/ Bob Bird

A coal miner two days after the April 5, 2010, explosion at Massey Energy Company’s Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, West Virginia. © AP Photo/ Bob Bird

On April 5, 2010, a fireball ripped through underground shafts at the Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, West Virginia, killing twenty-nine miners. It was the worst mining disaster in the United States in over forty years. When I heard the news on the radio that morning, my first thought was, “I bet it’s a Massey mine.” And it was. Under the ruthless leadership of CEO Don Blankenship, Massey Energy had unapologetically accumulated one of the worst safety records of any coal company in the country.

Between January 2009 and the day of the explosion, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) cited the Upper Big Branch mine for 639 violations, and in the past decade, fifty-four miners have been killed in Massey mines. Jeff Harris, a former Massey employee who quit to work for a union mine, told a Senate committee three weeks after the explosion that the company routinely chose productivity over safety. “Soon as the inspector would leave the property,” Harris said of Upper Big Branch, “they jerk all the ventilation back down and start mining coal.” Unfortunately, as a Labor Department investigation later revealed, the ventilation system could have played a significant role in preventing the methane buildup that ignited the explosion on April 5.

Testifying before the House Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, surviving miners from Upper Big Branch described repeated ventilation violations that left flammable coal dust collecting on conveyor belts. That was nothing new in a Massey mine. In the fall of 2005, Blankenship sent a memo to employees that read, “If any of you have been asked by your group presidents, your supervisors, engineers or anyone else to do anything other than run coal (i.e., build overcasts, do construction jobs, or whatever) you need to ignore them and run coal.” That “whatever” might have included stopping a conveyor belt long enough to remove combustible coal waste — on January 19, 2006, a fire broke out along a belt at a Massey mine in West Virginia, killing two men.

[1] In response to the naming of the Wildcat Coal Lodge, writer Wendell Berry withdrew all of the personal papers he had donated to the university’s special-collections library.

Twenty-four days after the tragedy at Upper Big Branch, two more miners were killed, this time in my home state of Kentucky, because a roof collapsed on them 500 feet underground. That occurred at the Dotiki mine, which seemed to follow Blankenship’s premise that installing support beams to stabilize roofs gets in the way of running coal; the mine had been cited for 2,973 violations in the previous five years. (The Dotiki mine was operated by a subsidiary of Alliance Resources, whose chief executive, Joe Craft, had recently brokered a deal with my own employer, the University of Kentucky. Last October, Craft pledged $7 million to build a new dorm for the basketball team if, and only if, UK agreed to name the building the Wildcat Coal Lodge. The dorm opened last year.)[1]

As I pondered all of these violations and deaths, a question formed over and over in my mind: What if the workers themselves had owned those mines? That question led to others. Unionized mines do a better job of maintaining worker safety than nonunion ones; would a worker-owned mine be better still? Would the ventilation curtains have remained in place even after the inspectors left? Would the workers have sent themselves a memo, like Don Blankenship’s, pointing out the importance of profits over their own lives? If the miners themselves had owned the mine, would they still be alive?

[2] I also discovered an outfit far beyond the southern mountains, in Wyoming, called the Kiewit Mining Group, whose website touts its “broad-based employee ownership.” I checked out the safety record of its Buckskin Mine in Campbell County. According to the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, Kiewit harvests on average about 15 million tons of coal there each year, and in sixteen years has been cited for only thirty-nine injuries and zero deaths.

I began doing some research to see if any such mines exist among the coalfields of Appalachia, but I could find none. From 1917 to 1927, however, a cooperative mining town called Himlerville did exist in Martin County, Kentucky, across the Tug Fork River from the notorious company towns of “Bloody” Mingo County, West Virginia.[2] The Himler Coal Company was founded by a Hungarian coal miner named Henrich Himler on the premise that the workers would be the stockholders and the stockholders would be the workers. Each year the company’s profits were distributed as dividends, and every miner, no matter his position, shared equally in stock bonuses.

At first Himlerville flourished, with handsome cottages, gardens, and indoor plumbing. It had a library, an auditorium, a school, and a bake shop. Residents didn’t suffer from typhoid, as they did across the river in Mingo County, nor did gun thugs patrol the grounds to intimidate miners and thwart attempts at collective bargaining. By 1922, the Himler Coal Company had raised its capital base from $500,000 to $2 million, and so decided to open two new mines. But then coal prices plunged, and the railroads brought in competition from larger corporations. “In 1927, the company was sold at auction to private capitalists,” writes historian Ronald Eller, “and the only effort at cooperative mining in the southern mountains came to an end.” Today, only Henrich Himler’s dilapidated Victorian home, in what’s now called Beauty, Kentucky, stands as evidence of the experiment.

One can say today about an Appalachian deep mine what Sarah Ogan Gunning sang almost eighty years ago in her anthem “Come All You Coal Miners”:

Coal mining is the most dangerous work in our land today.
Plenty of dirty slaving work and very little pay.

Trapper Boy, Turkey Knob Mine, MacDonald, West Virginia, October 1908. Courtesy the Library of Congress

Trapper Boy, Turkey Knob Mine, MacDonald, West Virginia, October 1908. Courtesy the Library of Congress

The pay has gotten better, thanks to unions, but the work remains deadly. And Gunning, who had watched children starve to death in coal camps, meant it when she sang the last line: “Let’s sink this capitalist system to the darkest pits of hell.” Of course in today’s America, this sentiment represents the worst kind of heresy: a denial of capitalism’s benevolent hand and the free market’s capacious ability to best know our human needs. It’s socialism, wealth-spreading, devil-worship.

But what if it isn’t? Pause for a moment to consider how this country might look if we did shift wealth away from predatory lenders and speculators, toward real workers who produce real wealth, in the form of goods and services? What if this shift represented a radical and ethical form of democracy — one grounded in trust, decent work, and marketplace morality?

The financial crisis of 2008 had a long gestation period that can be traced back to 1783, when Alexander Hamilton persuaded Continental Army soldiers, desperate for cash, to sell their war bonds to his speculating friends at one-thirtieth of their value. In the earliest days of the republic, Hamilton and financier–politician Robert Morris were making shady deals to funnel American wealth to the banking class of New York. Hamilton wanted to centralize the country’s wealth and power as fervently as his nemesis Thomas Jefferson wanted a decentralized nation of agrarian, self-sufficient wards. But of course we adopted Hamilton’s vision, not Jefferson’s, and as a result the United States now has the largest income gap of any country in the northern hemisphere — one that is now wider than at any point in our country’s history.

In their 2009 book, The Spirit Level, epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett concluded that every societal problem, without exception, can be tied directly to income inequality. The United States has higher levels of mental illness, infant mortality, obesity, violence, incarceration, and substance abuse than almost all other “developed” countries. And we have the worst environmental record in the world. When they died, the twenty-nine West Virginia miners were digging coal that the rest of us consume twice as fast as Americans did in the 1970s. Yet still we leave unquestioned the overarching goal of infinite economic growth on a planet of finite resources. The American economist Kenneth Boulding once remarked, “Anyone who believes that exponential growth can go on forever is either a madman or an economist.” But as we listen daily to the president, to members of Congress, and to the financial analysts who sail by on cable news, the dominant message is that endless economic growth is this country’s singular destiny.

In his biography of Hamilton, Ron Chernow wrote, “Today, we are indisputably the heirs to Hamilton’s America, and to repudiate his legacy is, in many ways, to repudiate the modern world.” Exactly. We are indeed Hamilton’s heirs, and to repudiate his legacy will mean repudiating what modern capitalism has brought us: toxic loans, toxic securities, toxic energy sources, and toxic growth.

But what if we replaced our Hamiltonian economy with a Jeffersonian one? Or, put in other terms, what if we took as our model not an economy of unchecked growth, but one based on the natural laws of the watershed? By its very nature, a watershed is self-sufficient, symbiotic, conservative, decentralized, and diverse. It circulates its own wealth over and over. It generates no waste, and doesn’t “externalize” the cost of “production” onto other watersheds. In a watershed, all energy is renewable and all resource use is sustainable. The watershed purifies air and water, holds soil in place, enriches humus, and sequesters carbon. It represents both a metaphor and a model for an entirely new definition of economy, whereby our American system of exchange in the realms of wealth and energy is brought into line with the most important and inescapable economy of nature.

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is the author of, most recently, The Embattled Wilderness, and the editor of The Guy Davenport Reader. He lives in Nonesuch, Kentucky.

More from Erik Reece:

From the December 2005 issue

Jesus without the miracles

Thomas Jefferson’s Bible and the Gospel of Thomas

From the April 2005 issue

Death of a mountain

Radical strip mining and the leveling of Appalachia

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Serving as a US Air Force launch control officer for intercontinental missiles in the early Seventies, First Lieutenant Bruce Blair figured out how to start a nuclear war and kill a few hundred million people. His unit, stationed in the vast missile fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base, in Montana, oversaw one of four squadrons of Minuteman II ­ICBMs, each missile topped by a W56 thermonuclear warhead with an explosive force of 1.2 megatons—eighty times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. In theory, the missiles could be fired only by order of the president of the United States, and required mutual cooperation by the two men on duty in each of the launch control centers, of which there were five for each squadron.

In fact, as Blair recounted to me recently, the system could be bypassed with remarkable ease. Safeguards made it difficult, though not impossible, for a two-man crew (of either captains or lieutenants, some straight out of college) in a single launch control center to fire a missile. But, said Blair, “it took only a small conspiracy”—of two people in two separate control centers—to launch the entire squadron of fifty missiles, “sixty megatons targeted at the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea.” (The scheme would first necessitate the “disabling” of the conspirators’ silo crewmates, unless, of course, they, too, were complicit in the operation.) Working in conjunction, the plotters could “jury-rig the system” to send a “vote” by turning keys in their separate launch centers. The three other launch centers might see what was happening, but they would not be able to override the two votes, and the missiles would begin their firing sequence. Even more alarmingly, Blair discovered that if one of the plotters was posted at the particular launch control center in overall command of the squadron, they could together format and transmit a “valid and authentic launch order” for general nuclear war that would immediately launch the entire US strategic nuclear missile force, including a thousand Minuteman and fifty-four Titan missiles, without the possibility of recall. As he put it, “that would get everyone’s attention, for sure.” A more pacifically inclined conspiracy, on the other hand, could effectively disarm the strategic force by formatting and transmitting messages invalidating the presidential launch codes.

When he quit the Air Force in 1974, Blair was haunted by the power that had been within his grasp, andhe resolved to do something about it. But when he started lobbying his former superiors, he was met with indifference and even active hostility. “I got in a fair scrap with the Air Force over it,” he recalled. As Blair well knew, there was supposed to be a system already in place to prevent that type of unilateral launch. The civilian leadership in the Pentagon took comfort in this, not knowing that the Strategic Air Command, which then controlled the Air Force’s nuclear weapons, had quietly neutralized it.

This reluctance to implement an obviously desirable precaution might seem extraordinary, but it is explicable in light of the dominant theme in the military’s nuclear weapons culture: the strategy known as “launch under attack.” Theoretically, the president has the option of waiting through an attack before deciding how to respond. But in practice, the system of command and control has been organized so as to leave a president facing reports of incoming missiles with little option but to launch. In the words of Lee Butler, who commanded all US nuclear forces at the end of the Cold War, the system the military designed was “structured to drive the president invariably toward a decision to launch under attack” if he or she believes there is “incontrovertible proof that warheads actually are on the way.” Ensuring that all missiles and bombers would be en route before any enemy missiles actually landed meant that most of the targets in the strategic nuclear war plan would be destroyed—thereby justifying the purchase and deployment of the massive force required to execute such a strike.

Among students of nuclear command and control, this practice of precluding all options but the desired one is known as “jamming” the president. Blair’s irksome protests threatened to slow this process. When his pleas drew rejection from inside the system, he turned to Congress. Eventually the Air Force agreed to begin using “unlock codes”—codes transmitted at the time of the launch order by higher authority without which the crews could not fire—on the weapons in 1977. (Even then, the Navy held off safeguarding its submarine-launched nuclear missiles in this way for another twenty years.)

Following this small victory, Blair continued to probe the baroque architecture of nuclear command and control, and its extreme vulnerability to lethal mishap. In the early Eighties, while working with a top-secret clearance for the Office of Technology Assessment, he prepared a detailed report on such shortcomings. The Pentagon promptly classified it as SIOP-ESI—a level higher than top secret. (SIOP stands for Single Integrated Operational Plan, the US plan for conducting a nuclear war. ESI stands for Extremely Sensitive Information.) Hidden away in the Pentagon, the report was withheld from both relevant senior civilian officials and the very congressional committees that had commissioned it in the first place.

From positions in Washington’s national security think tanks, including the Brookings Institution, Blair used his expertise and scholarly approach to gain access to knowledgeable insiders at the highest ranks, even in Moscow. On visits to the Russian capital during the halcyon years between the Cold War’s end and the renewal of tensions in the twenty-first century, he learned that the Soviet Union had actually developed a “dead hand” in ultimate control of their strategic nuclear arsenal. If sensors detected signs of an enemy nuclear attack, the USSR’s entire missile force would immediately launch with a minimum of human intervention—in effect, the doomsday weapon that ends the world in Dr. Strangelove.

Needless to say, this was a tightly held arrangement, known only to a select few in Moscow. Similarly chilling secrets, Blair continued to learn, lurked in the bowels of the US system, often unknown to the civilian leadership that supposedly directed it. In 1998, for example, on a visit to the headquarters of Strategic Command (­STRATCOM), the force controlling all US strategic nuclear weapons, at Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebraska, he discovered that the ­­­STRATCOM targeting staff had unilaterally chosen to interpret a presidential order on nuclear targeting in such a way as to reinsert China into the ­SIOP, from which it had been removed in 1982, thereby provisionally consigning a billion Chinese to nuclear immolation. Shortly thereafter, he informed a senior White House official, whose reaction Blair recalled as “surprised” and “befuddled.”

In 2006, Blair founded Global Zero, an organization dedicated to ridding the world of nuclear weapons, with an immediate goal of ending the policy of launch under attack. By that time, the Cold War that had generated the ­SIOP and all those nuclear weapons had long since come to an end. As a result, part of the nuclear war machine had been dismantled—warhead numbers were reduced, bombers taken off alert, weapons withdrawn from Europe. But at its heart, the system continued unchanged, officially ever alert and smooth running, poised to dispatch hundreds of precisely targeted weapons, but only on receipt of an order from the commander in chief.

Bombhead, by Bruce Conner (detail) © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, and ARS, New York City. Courtesy Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles

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