The True Cost of Coal: A Narrative on Mountaintop Removal and the Fight for Our Future

The Beehive Design Collective is a group of volunteering artists and activists who are dedicated to “cross-pollinating the grassroots” of the world (like bees, get it?) by combining storytelling with art and science. Covering topics ranging from globalization and trade to energy and climate change, they travel the world to learn other people’s experiences and combine that with research into a collaborative, hand-drawn poster. By sharing their art and story, the Beehive Collective uses their art to educate, organize, and inspire people all over the country. On Tuesday, SECS invited them to Champaign to present their story on “the True Cost of Coal”.

Graphic poster “the True Cost of Coal”- find an online narrative book telling the story in detail here.
The art graphic (or poster, or masterpiece, whatever you wanna call it) shown above is organized into five sections as a historical timeline, from left to right: Ancestors, Colonization & Industrialization, Mountaintop Removal & Climate Crisis, Resistance, and Regeneration. There are also smaller individual stories and cycles hidden deeper in each illustration– all the rich details from discovered during the bees’ travels. This project focuses on mountaintop removal and people from the Appalachian region of the United States. 
The beginning of the story opens with the origin and source of coal– from a time far back in geologic history during the Carboniferous Period when plants were compressed in anoxic swamps and pushed into sedimentary rock in the form of coal. Over all this time, the coal retains energy stored from the sun and plants’ photosynthesis over millions and millions of years, which is the reason why coal is highly dense in energy. 
The story then goes on to the ecology of the Appalachian mountains, one of the oldest mountain ranges in the world. Due to its fertile conditions and glacial history, it is the source of water and life for thousands of species and people. Freshwater from as far as Washington originates from mountain springs in Appalachia, and the region’s “mixed mesophytic forests” are among the most biodiverse in the world.
After the development of the area’s natural systems, the next addition to the story is humans and our influence. This section opens with the displacement of the indigenous people of Appalachia, including the Train of Tears and the spread of new diseases from European colonizers. Once that was done, there was a feverish race to grab land and property to lay down railroad, start resource extraction, and to build urban cities all in the name of “progress”. The art featured in this section includes the Battle of Blair Mountain, one of history’s largest labor struggles between miners and a coal company that ended with US Marshals dropping bombs on the striking miners.

The middle of the poster is our current predicament today. It shows the transition in the earth’s natural ecology as well as the economic transition from having 150,000 coal miners in Appalachia to fewer than 15,000 today. With new modern technology, humans are able to harvest coal faster and easier than ever before. The consequence? Mountains being levelled with tons and tons of overburden filling the valleys, releasing heavy metals and polluting water supplies (not to mention thousands of people losing their jobs).

Our reality is a “death cycle of coal”, consisting of combustion, consumption, and clmate chaos. The art graphic shows stories of greenwashing, a practice of advocating simple sustainable practices without actually changing to seem more environmentally friendly. The most popular solution seems to be to shop, and buy our way out of our problems but the beehive collective argues that “we need organized, collective action to transform a sick society and economy”. There needs to be a change in the system, not just our lightbulbs!

There are tons of smaller stories and great metaphors embedded throughout the poster, including “the Dance of Hard Choices”, featuring frogs and the tough decisions they must go through in life which affects the environment, their health, and their family’s future. The graphic also goes through the multiple uses and benefits of coal, including electricity, steel manufacturing, and jobs.

After three pretty depressing parts of the story, the poster then moves on to our response to all of this– resistance. Through grassroots campaigns, social movements, and solidarity people are starting to work in their communities like never before to try and react to a global climate crisis. The Beehive Collective says that community power and not coal power (or as we at UIUC Beyond Coal like to say, “soul power, not coal power”) is what we need to combat big companies and the government for a more sustainable future.

This part of the story also acknolwedges the reality that there is no renewable energy source that could be an identical substitute for coal, simply because of the time and energy density stored over hundreds of thousands of years. But even if there isn’t an identical substitute, our current age of technology and innovation can definitely find a solution and make money while doing it.

The art graphic ends with a look to our future and what lies ahead for Appalachia and for the world. Once we can successfully change our practices and move beyond coal, we must continue to protect and maintain our earth. The poster shows scenes of bioremediation by lady salamanders cleaning contaminated water and restoring plant life. Reclamation and restoration of soil and previously damaged landscapes is another step shown by animals working together to harvest rainwater and cultivate community supported agriculture.

Energy generation, not extraction is the key for future sources. By combining social movements and media along with solidarity economies, our future can be healthy, sustainable, and profitable. The end of the story is also a beginning– birds represent young folks returning home, welcomed back to their communities.

The presentation of “the True Cost of Coal” by the Beehive Collective at the YMCA.

To find out more about the Beehive Design Collective, visit their website here.

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