The new wave of environmental activism

On Wednesday March 26 at Noon, the Center for Social and Environmental Justice (CSEJ) sponsored a lecture by associate professor of English Wendy Olson, named “Appalachian Rhetorics of Resistance,” and a lecture by associate professor of political science Paul Thiers called “Extreme Energy Extraction and Export.”  The two lectures, while different in scope, shared a common concern about the environmental impact of fossil fuels.  The talks were part of the CSEJ’s annual research colloquium that has featured lectures from Washington State University Vancouver faculty, as well as experts from Seattle and Canada.

Olson’s topic focused on the ways in which people from Appalachia use rhetoric on a grassroots level to educate and lobby for change with coalmines. Olson stressed how education has been key in addressing such issues and breaking stereotypes.  According to Olson, schools like Highlander Research and the Education Center in Tennessee have a long history of educating and fighting for social and environmental justice.  The Education Center was very active in the civil rights movement and helped train civil rights leaders such as Rosa Parks.  A large majority of the center’s work has been focused on labor rights and environmental conservation.  Their work and the work of groups like Mountain Justice have helped mobilize local Appalachian communities to fight for protection against environmental degradation in mountaintop removal, Olson told the audience.

It is rhetoric resistance in action, Olson pointed out, yet at the same time they are using their rhetoric and the coalmines are using their own anti-regulation rhetoric.

“You have to recognize the ways in which rhetoric can function on both sides, so that it can be a way to create agency coalition building, but also realize it can be used for propaganda,” Olson told the VanCougar. During her talk, Olson quoted from writer and activist Silas House for the audience. “Those of us who protest mountaintop removal do it for the environment, but we’re also fighting to prove we are not unwanted burdens. Our water and air are being poisoned, but the most dangerous toxin is the message that people don’t matter.”

While Olsen’s talk was about the activism of the Appalachian people, Thiers’s talk focused on the environmental demand and impact of coal export, both locally and internationally.

Thiers pointed out that while coal use within the US has gone down, there is still great demand for coal in China.  To fill that demand coal companies are looking to export their coal.  “If exports were to open up, there’s no reason why production would decline,” Thiers stated.  Theirs talked about how opening up coal export terminals in the Northwest has been controversial and many environmental and political activists have protested the proposed terminals.  In Washington State, the status of the Longview terminal is tentative.  Permits cannot be issued for the terminal until the environmental review process is completed.

“I think what we are seeing is that activism focused on these individual terminals is somewhat successful, but now we are seeing an activism of the entire region, and that has been extremely successful, and could potentially stop the terminals from happening completely,” Theirs said.

For more information about upcoming CSEJ events, students, staff and faculty are encouraged to contact Desiree Hellegers at desiree.hellegers@vancouver.wsu.edu.


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