I’ve been thinking a lot about the notion of “other.” People outside of my circle. People I don’t understand, people who scare me, who confuse or annoy me. People with whom I assume I could never find common ground. Like the woman sitting poolside on her cell, oblivious to her young child unattended in the pool. Or a man yelling at his wife at an outdoor cafe. On some unconscious level I draw a line and think to myself, “I don’t know you, I don’t like you, we have nothing in common.”
But I don’t want to be the kind of person who shuts people out. I want to be someone who stretches to find connection, in spite of differences. That’s why my conversation with Jim Probst about coal country was so interesting.
Jim is a furniture maker and a CCL volunteer in Charleston, West Virginia. I wanted to know what it’s like to live in West Virginia, what it’s like to talk with his Tea Party member of congress about putting a price on carbon, which is what gets emitted when you burn coal. Coal—West Virginia’s middle name. (Read more about Jim’s courage.)
So that I could better understand what Jim is up against, I did a little homework. I wanted to know who lives in West Virginia and what shapes their view of the world. Until now, I’d never given coal miners much thought, but now I see that I unconsciously considered them “other.”
This is what I found. West Virginia used to be the go-to state for coal. Now Wyoming produces it more easily and cheaper. Thousands of coal jobs have been lost—to Wyoming and to coal’s less expensive sister, natural gas. Much of the state is in a recession, some of it in a depression. The state is 94 percent white, 40 percent Evangelical Christian, mostly blue-collar, with families who have been connected to the coal industry for generations. West Virginia has the highest incidence of youth deaths from heroin. The highest incidence of people on disability. Highest rates of cancer, obesity and diabetes. The state population of 1.8 million is decreasing year by year. For two years in a row, they have ranked 47th in education for kids.
In other words, things are kind of a mess.
And putting a price on carbon is certainly not going to be at the top of their wish list. Do I think putting a price on carbon is an essential next step to slowing rising temperatures and transitioning to renewable energy? Absolutely.
But for the moment, I want to put myself in the shoes of a West Virginian. If I lived in West Virginia and my paycheck were dependent on coal, if the history of coal and the history of my family were intertwined for generations, would I be fast to applaud carbon pricing? Not on your life.
Suddenly “other” doesn’t feel so “other.” Because despite our differences, there are things I do understand about livelihood and family history. Things I do understand about tradition and security.
Do I still think we have to give up fossil fuels? Absolutely. Does my heart go out to the people of West Virginia in a way that it didn’t before I did some homework? Yes.
My world just got a little bigger. There is no “other.”