[00:00:00:15] NICK MULLINS: I understand where people are coming from and what they need. At the same time, I understand what environmentalists are wanting to accomplish, and the need to accomplish those things. And unfortunately, with the way the environmental organizers were communicating in communities, with their protests and anti-coal messaging, that's viewed as kind of elitism from a lot of mining communities. It fed directly into all the coal industry rhetoric and just intensified the divide. And I realized we had to do something about that.
[00:00:33:23] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: This is Climate Conversations, a podcast by ClimateX. Welcome to season two of Climate Conversations. I'm Rajesh Kasturirangan in the Office of Open Learning, earlier known as the Office of Digital Learning at MIT, with my colleague Laura Howells.
[00:00:52:15] LAURA HOWELLS: Hi Rajesh, how are you?
[00:00:54:08] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: I'm really fine. This is going to be a great season on climate justice. We have some fantastic interviews lined up, including the first one today, which is with Nick Mullins, ex coal miner, and now an environmental and climate activist.
[00:01:11:22] LAURA HOWELLS: Great. Let's take a listen.
[00:01:14:23] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: In this week's climate conversations we have wonderful new conversational partner, Nick Mullins. Ninth generation Appalachian, fifth generation ex coal miner--
[00:01:28:13] NICK MULLINS: Yes.
[00:01:28:25] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: --who cares more about the future of his children than the profits of coal companies. And we are very, very happy to have Nick here in the studio with us. And we also have, of course, our old comrades in arms.
[00:01:42:09] LAURA HOWELLS: Hi, I'm Laura Howells, from ClimateX.
[00:01:43:28] DAVE DAMM-LUHR: And Dave Damm-Luhr, also from ClimateX. Glad to have you here, Nick.
[00:01:47:11] NICK MULLINS: Thank you. Glad to be here.
[00:01:49:01] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: So Nick, nine generations. So how many years ago?
[00:01:52:27] NICK MULLINS: Let's see. Well, our family recollection, I believe my sixth great grandfather moved to western North Carolina, into those mountains, in the mid 1700s, so 18th century. His son would eventually move the family to southwestern Virginia in 1829, which is where we would end up settling and staying, until, well, until I moved my family away to Berea Kentucky in 2011.
[00:02:24:17] LAURA HOWELLS: I'd love to ask the question, as an outsider then, as someone who possibly doesn't understand the, or doesn't have much knowledge of the heritage, and your experience as a ninth generation Appalachian. Could you tell me a little bit about what that was like for you growing up?
[00:02:39:10] NICK MULLINS: Had to frame it a little bit with some context of what the industry has done to the region. Of course, we were Scotts Irish people who ended up in the mountains to escape and find our freedom and liberty away from the indentured servitude that was occurring. They had actually come over to escape the tenant farming abuse in Scotland, or excuse me, Ireland. So they had moved to the mountains, you know, had acclimated themselves to it, learned how to live off the land, much the way the Cherokee had, coexisted. And over time, though, they were eventually found out to have landed basically on massive amounts of coal and timber resources. So over the decades, as those were developed, our families were more or less forced into some degrees of exploitation, with the coal companies honing their mineral rights, having purchased them. So this was kind of the cultural knowledge that I was brought up with. My father was the fourth generation of our family to work in the underground coal mines. He was a union miner, as were my grandfathers. My great grandfather. So we had a good understanding of the coal industry's true intents in the region, in that we couldn't trust them, and that they were just there to exploit both our resources and our labor, to extract it.
[00:03:59:27] So growing up, I had a fairly close to middle class raising, I guess you could say. You know, my dad was working a good union mining job. We had a lot of the things that other kids had in the 1980s, Nintendos and things. But towards the end of the 80s, I really got to see exactly the truth of the industry. Whenever the Pittston coal company, the larger producer and employer in our area, had decided to take away all the health care benefits from their pensioners, disabled miners, widows, and of course retirees. And our entire community and 1,500 miners walked out of jobs, and gave up their paychecks to protect those, so. It was really an interesting mix. I mean I was both being, to some degree indoctrinated into materialism, and what America is, through c-band satellite and television. But also I was with my family, who had traditionally avoided a lot of that, and tried to stay out of debt, and maintain some of the old ways of living off the land, and finding themselves to be very resilient in terms of growing gardens and things.
[00:05:11:28] DAVE DAMM-LUHR: So you actually then took a job as a coal miner yourself? That's what I understand.
[00:05:17:21] NICK MULLINS: Eventually, yeah. Actually, our families didn't want the younger generations to go in the mines. It was good work, but it also came with long term health effects. Even if you did the best you could, you usually came out with some sort of black lung. And it was always cyclical. So you had your booms and busts. There was no real job security. So they always wanted us to go on and do better. Encouraged us to do well in school. The old Jean Ritchie song, the L&N Don't Stop Here Anymore. When I was a curly headed baby, my daddy sat me on his knee and said, son, go to school, and do your letters, and don't end up like a coal miner like me. And there was a lot of truth to that. So we were encouraged to go to college if we could, to do well in school and escape that fate. And unfortunately, coal field school systems aren't really the most adept at sending students on to college. A lot of times they were very underfunded. Teachers we're forced to mitigate those issues and choose the students who they felt had the most chance. But eventually, I did graduate high school. I didn't go on to college. I should have, but I just gave up. And I'd tried to do everything I could. I moved away from the region. Moved to Indiana, hoping to become a full time firefighter. Didn't quite do that. I ended up going to Knoxville, hoping to get into computers, since I had a good knowledge of computers. One of the nice things about my father having worked a good union job, and been able to afford us a Commodore at one time. So going back a little ways.
[00:06:56:16] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: Yeah
[00:06:59:26] NICK MULLINS: But coming out of the mountains, with a coal field education, at a coal field public school, I was ill prepared to be in Knoxville or any other place. So I landed back home a lot, and even went into the military for a short time, tried to follow my brother's footsteps. And eventually, did land a decent job at a local economic development job, we consider them to be. It was a call center doing tech support for Crutchfield car stereos, home theater systems. So it provided close to a living wage, but not quite enough to raise kids on. No retirement to speak of. Paycheck to paycheck. Couldn't put anything into a 401(k). So I ended up putting, after seven years I had $7,000 in my 401(k). So I was like, yeah, this math doesn't add up. I searched desperately for other jobs, trying to find something else that would provide a living wage, retirement. Railroads, utility companies, but those jobs are so highly competed for, and I was told that many times. Ended up going to the only thing I could find, coal mining, after about 10 years of avoiding it.
[00:08:08:05] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: And I'm sure your story has been replicated across the region.
[00:08:13:09] NICK MULLINS: Mm-hmm. There has been a lot of different stories of out migration. Some people that moved out and were able to stay away. My first cousin, she and her husband moved to Morristown, Tennessee, where they still reside. I have aunts and uncles, well, more importantly, one aunt who actually made it to Knoxville and stayed there. But there's, and there's other members of my family that have out migrated to the northern cities. So it's very common, and common for people to end up in the mines. Whenever I started in 2007, I was hired in with a bunch of gentlemen about my age who had worked at the other economic development for the region in the 90s, state super maximum security prisons, including Red Onion, which was on the recent HBO documentary Solitary. So they actually kind of came from off of the hill as prison guards, down into the valley below to work at deep mine 26. They preferred that over being prison guards, of course, for good reason. You know, that's your choices. You know, be a prison guard at the super maximum security prison, or work in a coal mine to earn a living for your family.
[00:09:23:26] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: So from your insider's perspective, what's happening to the coal economy in that region right now?
[00:09:30:07] NICK MULLINS: Well, natural gas has finally become abundant enough, and cheap enough, to overpower the coal industry's hold on the electrical generation sector. It's plain and simple. So it's driven down the demand for coal in terms of electrical generation. Power plants, aging coal fired power plants, are being shut down left and right. And if a utility company has the ability to open up a natural gas plant, without the cost of building scrubbers, and having to deal with the legacy costs of ash, then of course they're going to go with the cheapest, easiest, cleanest thing, that's more compliant with current regulations. So the coal industry is taking a real hit. The other coal that we produce in Appalachia is metallurgical coal, which is what I predominately mined. And that market fluctuates highly on the global market. In 2008, it peaked out in the $300 per ton range, and our mine was producing 1.7 million tons, so if you want to do that math. But it was mostly being exported to--
[00:10:36:06] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: 510 million.
[00:10:37:18] NICK MULLINS: Mm-hmm. Yup. So that's-- I think, I got on to the Energy Information Administration web site, and of course I couldn't get exact numbers on export prices to average them, because those figures were locked out of all the reports. And I still can't figure out why. I need to send out a Freedom of Information Act. But what I was able to ascertain off of that, the overall 15 year average price for metallurgical exports in the country, that mine, and what that mine produced, they produced close to $1.9 billion in 15 years, using an average of 250 to 300 workers. And that--
[00:11:14:07] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: That's a lot per worker.
[00:11:15:07] NICK MULLINS: Mm-hmm. And if I'm not mistaken, a lot of my family members used to own a lot of the land that that mine was bringing the coal out from underneath.
[00:11:24:24] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: So is that a big part of the struggle? Who owns the natural resource in the first place?
[00:11:30:05] NICK MULLINS: Absolutely. Well, the coal industry, well, it started out with land agents and timber companies. After the Civil War, after some of your officers had come through the region, and had an eye for this sort of thing, whenever they returned north, they came with stories of the vast timber and coal resources. As well as missionaries who had come to Appalachia to do missionary work. And so it peaked the interest of a lot of different, I guess, corporations in the north, and they sent out land agents to come and procure land, and mineral rights, predominately. And they preyed upon the hospitality of Appalachian people. They would come, spend the night, be fed, and offer people money for their mineral rights, that usually ended up pennies on the acre, sometimes $0.25, and sometimes they wouldn't even trade money. The story goes that some of the members of my family traded off over 300 acres of mineral rights for 13 hogs and 12 rifles. And they got off better than some people. There are stories that go back of people who were falsely arrested by local law enforcement who were working in conjunction with land agents and coal companies. And in order to be able to make their bail, they had to offer up their mineral rights. So that's why 70% to 75% of our mineral rights are owned by out-of-state companies, and we have, we get no benefit from them except for the wages of mining it, and the health that goes along with it.
[00:13:02:00] DAVE DAMM-LUHR: So I'd be curious to know, you're no longer a coal miner. So there was some sort of transition there from being a coal miner to the kinds of things that you've been doing recently. If you could tell our listeners a little bit about what that transition out of coal mining and into next phases, looked like, that would be great.
[00:13:20:14] NICK MULLINS: Well, I mean I had to talk myself to go into coal mining to begin with, sure. I mean, I felt like, to some degree, a failure, because I hadn't succeeded. So I had to talk myself into it and built up this real belief that coal mining wasn't as bad as I originally thought, and my parents had told me. The unions had been busted in the 90s, so those days were gone. And the companies had done a really good job at publicizing and doing public relations for showing themselves as a benevolent force in the region. That they're running right. They're doing things better. That there's no need for unions anymore. That they're safer. And I bought into it. So I went into the mines, and I really enjoyed it at first. Being able to finally connect, and talk to my family about things, that, you know, my father and my uncles, and relate those stories. But over time, I don't know, I just kept realizing more and more how bad people were being treated without the union. There was so much competition amongst miners. I remember, I think I'd been working three months, and I was working with one of the older guys, and I said man, my dad used to say that running coal was fun he says, well, Nick, it used to be. But that was before they started rushing us, and before they started finding every way to milk it out of us. 10 hour workdays, rotating shifts, mandatory overtime, and any time that there was a possibility of layoffs, they always framed it as performance based. So you developed this culture of competition amongst the miners. So, you know, we're living in a region that has no other job alternatives, except for service industry or working as a prison guard, and you build up your debts, and your lifestyle around the coal mining wage. What are you going to do to protect it? And unfortunately, it separated a lot of us. So the coal industry had finally gotten what they wanted, a desperate workforce willing to compete with one another to make sure that they're not the next ones in the layoffs.
[00:15:20:17] So I saw this, and realized it, and thought about it. Tried to get the union involved. Wanted them to come in and organize, but I don't know, after I finally spoke with them, and gave them my name and information, things started changing the way I was treated at the mine. Some people had warned me that there was a possibility that they were working in conjunction with the companies, that there were some low level corruption there. So I can't confirm it, but. So the next people that I reached out to were environmental organizers. My father had picked up copies of the Appalachian Voice, which was from an environmental organization out in North Carolina, who had been talking about the fracking issues. And I had heard that, I had seen Coal Country, and saw that there were other former miners involved in it. So I kind of got involved in environmentalism through those channels. But, you know, I was still very much scared of losing my job, so I had to kind of do it on the sly. But unfortunately, during the summer of 2010, we suffered a tremendous loss. We lost my great grandparents' home to a fire that we were living in, and--
[00:16:30:08] DAVE DAMM-LUHR: I'm really sorry to hear that.
[00:16:31:24] NICK MULLINS: Yeah. But, I don't know. In the months to follow, it really led me to think about life in a lot different ways, and I had a really good support network of friends and family, who were there to take care of me, and I don't know, after that, and seeing how things were, and opening up, and understanding all the issues, I realized I couldn't continue working in the mines, and we would just have to try something different. And I just couldn't reconcile doing the things to the land, and to future generations that I was doing, just to earn a paycheck, and to have things that I really didn't need anyway.
[00:17:12:01] LAURA HOWELLS: And that must have been a massive transition, obviously for yourself, but also for your family. Was that a tough thing to convince people of? Was that a really tough transition to actually go through yourself? It was. I mean, my immediate family were supportive. You know, my kids, they were very resilient. I'm so tickled with the way that they just kind of bounce back from it all. And it was definitely a change, but it was also a little bit of freedom because, one thing that my ex-wife told me, was that after I left the mines, I became a different person. I was no longer grumpy, and grouchy, and miserable to live with. So that helped. But as time went on, and I got more into the environmental thing, or side of things, I did start seeing some resistance from more extended family, those that still work in the coal industry, definitely see me as kind of getting above my raising, as they say, or too big for my britches, which is another Appalachian saying. That I was just going too far beyond where I came from. But I think over the past few years, since I've transitioned away from the real environmental activism, to more miner, and mining community advocacy, they understand a little bit more about where I'm coming from, and have been more accepting of it.
[00:18:37:12] DAVE DAMM-LUHR: So in terms of the advocacy that you just talked about, what sort of things do you do?
[00:18:43:25] NICK MULLINS: Well, yet again, I'm an Appalachian, so everything comes with a story. Whenever I really got involved in environmental activism, I couldn't help but think about, during the marches, and the protests, and the things that a lot of local organizers were doing, and even national organizers, that this wasn't reaching our mining communities. That it was being seen as eccentric, and extremist, and completely out of touch by mining communities. My family included. Men that I worked with at the mines. And you could see it evidencing itself whenever there were protests in the mountains. The coal miners, and coal mining families would come out in defense of the coal industry, which of course, the coal industry was working on themselves as well, with their public relations campaigns. And the way that--
[00:19:30:25] DAVE DAMM-LUHR: The war on coal, that sort of thing.
[00:19:32:14] NICK MULLINS: The war on coal, and friends of coal. They acculturated Appalachian values. Dr. Shannon Bell, a sociologist, wrote her dissertation on it. That and a few other things. But basically outlining how the coal industry came in and used our own cultural icons to show themselves to be a part of the communities. And I feel that they were better able to do this and accomplish this, because people didn't like the environmentalists. You know, they didn't like the way that they were coming in and telling everybody well, you know, what you're doing is wrong, and we got to stop this. And that coal is bad. And of course, this has been our heritage. And even though our forefathers didn't know the negative impacts of coal, and what happened in terms of climate change, and pollution, and things, we sacrificed everything for it. 104,000 coal miners have been killed in this nation since 1900. So that didn't sit very well with local people. It became a situation of, you know, we know the coal industry is bad. But at least they're here for us. They're saying they're here for us. They are giving us jobs. And they appreciate us, or at least say put it across that way. And the same for the politicians. But the environmentalists were just beating their fists on our doors, and not literally, but a lot of people see it that way.
[00:20:54:12] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: So do you see it as a messaging issue, or is there something substantially, like is there a genuine conflict that cannot be resolved?
[00:21:01:23] NICK MULLINS: Well, I believe it's absolutely messaging and communications. And that's the reason after I left the mines, and got more involved in environmental activism, and went back to college, I actually switched from a major that I intended to work in renewables and energy efficiency, into communications. Because I saw this intense divide. And this like, as long as we can not communicate, and get these messages across to the working class people that there are negative impacts, that this is damaging our health, and that we do have to move on and transition away from this, that we'll never build enough political support to actually achieve that. And unfortunately, with the way the environmental organizers were communicating in communities, and nationally, with their protests, and anti-coal messaging, and that's viewed as kind of elitism, from a lot of mining communities, it fed directly into all the coal industry rhetoric, and just intensified the divide.
[00:22:01:05] And I realized, we have to do something about that. I mean the facts are there. If you live near a mountaintop removal mine, you're twice as likely to get cancer. There's a 43% increase in birth defects. But as long as people do not believe the environmentalists, as long as they're able to discredit them as being eccentric, and--
[00:22:21:23] DAVE DAMM-LUHR: Tree huggers.
[00:22:22:15] NICK MULLINS: Tree huggers. Then they'll just continue believing that that is overstated. People with an agenda. Trying to sell solar panels and wind turbines. And that climate change is a hoax, and everything else.
[00:22:37:20] LAURA HOWELLS: And so do you consider yourself to be an environmental activist, but a new breed of environmental activist?
[00:22:43:16] NICK MULLINS: I've actually-- I've disconnected myself from the term entirely. Especially whenever working in Appalachia. I cannot get into a conversation with anybody, and have any credibility as an environmental activist. It is so polarized. So I have to choose different means of communicating with communities that talks to their daily lives. So what I tend to work towards is a just transition, economic development in terms of working in Appalachia, as well as just energy transition. The fact of the matter is, people who are outside of the region, because the national media think that coal miners just want to mine coal. That it's purely a desire to go underground and do this job. But the fact of the matter is, is most of the guys that I worked with would have left the mines in a heartbeat, had they been given an economic alternative, another job to take. I worked with a guy who was in his late 50s. He says, you know, if I was in my 30s, I'd grab my work bucket, and I would get out of this mine, and I'd never looked back.
[00:23:51:08] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: So what does it just transition look to you?
[00:23:54:18] NICK MULLINS: That's a tough one. I mean whenever you get right down to it, and start examining the issues that Appalachia faces. Number one, the cultural hegemony that's occurred because of this recent jobs versus environment debate. The continued political power and economic power of the industry. They are maintaining a captive workforce, and I believe this to be actively maintaining a captive workforce. In the case of my home area of Southwestern Virginia, the Virginia coal field economic development authority, up until just a couple of years ago, was boarded, or had a board of directors that was half coal industry officials. And of course, what did they bring in during the coal industry's peak this last time around? The Appalachian American Energy Research Center. They discussed doing some research into boron based cold fusion, but then they also had a couple of companies starting up, and they're all working on clean coal technology. So just one example of many, of how economic development is, to me, political maneuvering and tongue in cheek kind of, we're going to do this to maintain votes, but truth is, we need to keep a captive workforce so people will be willing to go working in the mines, rather than have alternatives.
[00:25:13:02] LAURA HOWELLS: So it sounds to me like the separation of the coal mining industry and government is what could make the biggest difference in that region, so that these governments are no longer funded. The school systems aren't coal school systems anymore.
[00:25:26:14] NICK MULLINS: Exactly and it has to deal with also land ownership, too. One of the reasons that our public school systems are so underfunded is because the majority of land is owned by out-of-state companies. Do they want to pay higher taxes? No, they don't. So we have really low property taxes, extremely low, which helps, because of the extensive poverty that the mono economy has created. It helps people maintain their land. But at the same time, our public school systems suffer deeply. And Dickson County, my home county, they weren't able to build a new high school in 50 years, because they didn't have the funding. 60 years, actually. And the only way they got that funding was through the Army Corps of Engineers and the United States Department of Agriculture. They did a study to find out that a lot of the schools were in flood plains, and so it freed up federal funding. But the following year that they opened it, they had to layoff 42 teachers. It works in a lot of ways to the advantage of the industry too, to have poorly funded school systems.
[00:26:25:25] DAVE DAMM-LUHR: Yep. So does just transition mean that there's a greater percentage of renewables in the mix? Or what does that look like in terms of energy?
[00:26:35:02] NICK MULLINS: In terms of energy, whenever I think of just transition nationally, or even globally, it is in which we begin to look at renewables. But first and foremost, we have to look at our consumption. You know, solar, wind, are wonderful things. But Jacobsen's paradox is that the more it would create, the more we'll just continue to consume. So we have to be able to reduce our consumption. We had to really bring in energy efficiency, which a lot of people are beginning to call our first fuel. And in doing so, we can provide jobs. You can take coal miners and retrain them in building trades to work on infrastructure. The Coal Field Development Corporation is working to do those sorts of things. So we have so many opportunities to employ people who were originally tied to the fossil fuel industries. And in terms of a just transition, it gives them an opportunity to make the same, or near wages that they had once made.
[00:27:35:06] You know, as a mine electrician I made $28 an hour. What I didn't find out until later, was that outside of the mines, working a prevailing wage job as a four year journeyman electrician, I could make $28 an hour. But there's a reason that the mine electrical certification doesn't transfer over to journeyman, or any other kind of residential commercial. So we have to eliminate those roadblocks. We have to invest in this retraining, but we also have to provide jobs. And that's going to take investments into energy efficiency to create jobs, and to rebuild our infrastructure to be more efficient, and to help people as well. So I think that's one piece of it. There's a lot more there. Appalachia has a lot of problems, unfortunately, because of the mono economy created poverty.
[00:28:26:11] DAVE DAMM-LUHR: So one of the things I'm curious about is, getting back to the messaging issue, how you position yourself. When I was reading your blog, The Thoughtful Coal Miner, which I really enjoy and just subscribed to, you seem to be positioning yourself as a sort of bridge person between the environmentalists and the coal folks. And how do you see?
[00:28:45:25] NICK MULLINS: I do try to position myself between, and I try to speak to working class communities and families, because that's my background. You know it was my background up until I was 30 years old. So, and I understand where people are coming from and what they need. At the same time, I understand what environmentalists are wanting to accomplish, and the need to accomplish those things. I mean, we're talking about the future health of our generations to come, including my own children. So it's a matter of being able to speak to both audiences. But I do tend to try to work a little bit more these days within the environmental advocacy organizations, by reaching out to colleges, and universities, and the schools for the environment and so on, to get people to understand that you don't necessarily have to parachute into these front line communities in order to treat the symptoms of the problem, whenever we could be working on the source of our problems in our own communities. So it's really just a very diverse range of work that I do, from The Thoughtful Coal Miner, from doing speaking, and trying to work with organizations who are actively looking to better their messaging, and communicate across those political and cultural divides.
[00:30:09:16] DAVE DAMM-LUHR: To the end that we have less polarization. That's what I was picking up from your blog.
[00:30:13:28] NICK MULLINS: Yes, absolutely. Because we can't continue with this extreme left, extreme right polarization. We are all on the same page. Just so many people don't realize it.
[00:30:24:22] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: On the environmentalist side, what do you find the hardest problem?
[00:30:30:00] NICK MULLINS: Well, just taking agency in their communications, and the outcome of their communications. A lot of people just want to keep repeating the same processes. They want to keep doing the same things over and over, because it's what they know how to do. In the case of Appalachia, I really got the sense that environmental organizers, and so-called grassroots organizations, just finally gave up on trying to talk to coal miners and coal mining communities. And they're just fighting the industry, working legal battles, trying to get funding, and they just continue the same things. Because they have polarized themselves to where they can't connect and talk to mining families. They can't get on the same page. So it's getting them to understand that you have to take a few steps back. That everybody has a role, and that sometimes that role isn't doing tree sits, and doing banner drops, and having mass marches that clog up city centers. And it feels great that you're doing it, and you're empowered, and everybody is in there doing wonderful things, and everybody's like minded, but you know, somebody a block or two away is screaming, because they can't get to work on time, because of a bunch of environmental hippies. That's the unfortunate side. That's the unfortunate stereotype that is given to environmentalists. And they have to understand that if as long as they are seen as that way, and that they aren't willing to communicate across lines, that they're going to continue to come across as elitist. And people in front line communities just don't want to listen to that.
[00:32:10:20] LAURA HOWELLS: So what would your message of hope be, if you were going to encourage people to get involved, to help improve this transition, this just transition away from coal? What would you encourage people to do?
[00:32:24:24] NICK MULLINS: Well, I mean, everybody has their part. One is educate themselves. One thing I know is that we can all work to be more sustainable, to be more efficient, to use less resources.
[00:32:37:18] DAVE DAMM-LUHR: That first fuel you were talking about.
[00:32:39:02] NICK MULLINS: That first fuel. We can reduce our impacts. But at the same time, we have to work within our own communities, and within our own, as social judgments theory says, our own latitudes of acceptance, with people who we can communicate with, and connect with, and have credibility with. Talk to people. Discuss the issues, but not in such a way that it is it comes across as extreme, or eccentric, even. We have to start communicating with people that appear to be polar opposite to us. I think that is one of the big things. Rather than just throwing our hands up in the air, and just calling people names, find some moral humility, as one of my friends once said. A lot of people, I feel, are looking at Appalachia, and looking down their nose at Appalachia, for the recent presidential election. They're labeling them as the deplorables. The racists. The bigots. But that's not true. Not in all cases. I'm not going to say is it doesn't exist. It does exist in small pockets. But by and large, people voted for Trump because they believed he was going to help them and their families and their community, and they felt he was an honest, trustworthy person.
[00:33:55:02] LAURA HOWELLS: Because that was what he promised. He promised to help the miners.
[00:33:57:11] NICK MULLINS: Exactly. And whenever someone like Donald Trump gains people's trust, and the opposition doesn't, that says something about the opposition's message and way of going about things. You can have all the logic in the world, but unless you have the credibility, and the emotional pill, and you know how to talk to people on the front lines, and address their issues, you're not going to get very far with them. You know, I feel a lot of liberal elitism occurs within environmental organizations. You know, I see people pushing local people away that could become excellent grassroots organizers, but they don't fall within the mold.
[00:34:36:13] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: I want to bring up a topic, I mean you just mentioned grassroots organizing in the local communities. I mean, this is what traditionally labor did.
[00:34:45:26] NICK MULLINS: Yes. Yes.
[00:34:46:18] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: Right? I mean and the fact-- I mean mining was a very dangerous industry, and it was organized labor that made it better for everybody concerned.
[00:34:57:15] NICK MULLINS: Absolutely.
[00:34:57:28] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: So do you think that that intersection of old style union organizing, and newer, more environmental organizing, can come together?
[00:35:08:06] NICK MULLINS: Well, it was tried. In 2011, they had the march on Blair Mountain. The original march on Blair Mountain occurred in 1921. 20,000 some miners, unionized miners from northern West Virginia, marched to southern West Virginia to help the miners there organize and beat out the terrible situations that were occurring in the southern coal fields. It led to like the Matewan Massacre, for instance. Well in 2011, environmental organizers, local historians, decided yeah, this is what we need to do. So they replicated the march on Blair Mountain, and they got buy in from the local unions. But by and large, the majority of people that you see that were marching, were not from within the region. A lot of, unfortunately, some of them looked very different than the people that were from the region. And there were counter-protests set up by local people that were telling them, you know, go home, tree huggers. There were cases in which some local people wouldn't allow them to get anywhere near their property. They were disallowed from being able to camp out at places that they had initially agreed to camp out. And so those were all community push backs on that. And unfortunately, I feel like it might have even tainted labor to some degree.
[00:36:28:10] On the other side of it, the United Mine Workers has come out against the Clean Power Plan. They were there at the EPA hearings in Pittsburgh in force, and actually clashed with environmental activists from the Sierra Club that had convened there. That's in the documentary Blood on the Mountain, some excellent footage of that. But yeah, Cecil Roberts was up there preaching against the Clean Power Plan. Even the unions are trying to preserve the industry to continue on the coal mining, so that they can continue filling the pension coffers and things. So very difficult situation there.
[00:37:05:01] DAVE DAMM-LUHR: I have a question about, you went back to school, in Kentucky, in Berea college?
[00:37:09:20] NICK MULLINS: Yes.
[00:37:10:05] DAVE DAMM-LUHR: What's the role of places like Berea in that just transition?
[00:37:15:21] NICK MULLINS: Well, Berea College is truly an amazing institution, I will say that first and foremost. I mean, any institution that one, was created to, was the first fully integrated college in the south, in 1865, with a 50% African-American freed slaves, 50% white.
[00:37:35:07] DAVE DAMM-LUHR: Wow, I didn't realize that.
[00:37:36:12] NICK MULLINS: Yes. As well as offer every student a free tuition, if they're accepted, because they believe in investing in the lives of great promise.
[00:37:43:22] LAURA HOWELLS: Fantastic.
[00:37:44:15] NICK MULLINS: Yes. You have to be low income to get in. So they really invest in people's, in young people's ideas and missions, and the desire to do things better. So there's a lot of programs that Berea is involved in that's definitely to help better life in Appalachia. Liberal arts colleges that really give people a broad understanding of their role in society, and our place in the world, is deeply necessary if we're going to achieve any sort of just transition.
[00:38:17:10] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: Well, with that thought, we're going to have to close. And we always ask this question. If you had a magic wand, you could wave it, and you could make one thing better, say in Appalachia, but also better for the world at large, and for the climate, what would that be?
[00:38:37:01] NICK MULLINS: I think that everybody becomes instantly knowledgeable about our impacts on other places, and becomes motivated to work towards a more sustainable and resilient future, and are more informed, and continue to wish to be more informed on the issues, instead of just browbeaten with all of the public relations that's coming from corporations. So a well educated, democratic populace, that's not so, again, cheated out of good information, and are so misinformed by other people.
[00:39:21:06] LAURA HOWELLS: I like that answer. I feel like that's a manageable magic wand. To be informed and to be educated. Absolutely.
[00:39:28:02] NICK MULLINS: As long as we can do it without coming across as a bunch of liberal elitists who've gotten above their raises.
[00:39:34:29] DAVE DAMM-LUHR: Amen.
[00:39:35:25] NICK MULLINS: Thank you so much.
[00:39:36:17] LAURA HOWELLS: Thank you so much.
[00:39:36:25] DAVE DAMM-LUHR: Thanks, Nick, it was great talking to you today.
[00:39:38:19] NICK MULLINS: Thank you all.
[00:39:40:17] LAURA HOWELLS: That was a fascinating perspective
[00:39:42:14] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: It was so good. And I have to say that it was not an interview we had solicited ourselves. Nick came our way through a common friend. I am so glad that that happened.
[00:39:53:12] LAURA HOWELLS: Absolutely. It was wonderful having such a human perspective. It was emotional, and it was touching, and it was interesting to hear his story and how, essentially, we are failing as environmental activists, when we're trying to communicate with communities like the coal mining communities, and the Appalachian people.
[00:40:12:07] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: And every issue of justice is going to be like that. That it is about those very raw emotions, and about how there are struggles going on everywhere, and people are trying to find out how are they going to manage their communities, how are they going to address problems as they come up, but then work with others.
[00:40:33:08] LAURA HOWELLS: Yeah, and that's what we want to touch on this season. We want to start exploring how different communities, whether they be coal mining communities, whether they be marginalized groups, and aboriginal people, we want to think about, and start discussing, how are they affected by climate change, and how are they involved in climate action?
[00:40:47:28] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: And we are, I think, just beginning to understand the complexities of these issues. So if you have any thoughts that you would like to share with us, please do. As usual, we are on Facebook, on Twitter, or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[00:41:04:14] LAURA HOWELLS: Yep. Or you can write a post on ClimateX. If you want to get in touch with our community, get some feedback and ideas, please do sign up to the site.
[00:41:11:16] RAJESH KASTURIRANGAN: Thank you for listening.
[00:41:12:21] [MUSIC PLAYING]