Sorry not to have posted last week. I was still catching up from my time in West Virginia with my colleagues from Church in Society. We observed there firsthand some of the issues that folks are facing in the rural areas of Appalachia. I had hoped to post from the region but the days were packed full. I am still processing what I saw and heard so I apologize if the following is not yet fully formulated. Five thoughts:

1) Driving along the Interstate I saw several billboards by the heavy equipment manufacturer Cat. The sign proudly proclaims “Coal, Yes. Clean, Carbon Neutral Coal.” One problem: we do not yet have any way of burning coal cleanly. Another problem, and this may be the bigger one, even if we could figure out how to burn it cleanly, the way in which we extract it is environmentally and socially destructive (and don’t forget about the Tennessee disaster a couple of months ago).

2) Water issues are not only a Global South problem. They are not only a future problem. Today, in the U.S., there are people who do not have access to safe drinking water. Nancy Michaelis already gave an articulate post on this. Read it here.

3) One of the scary things about coal, or any fossil fuel for that matter, is that we all consume it. Lots of it. We consume coal in direct ways when we flip on the lights in our houses (this cool Web site shows how you may be connected to West Virginia coal). We consume coal in indirect ways when we buy just about anything. We are a very energy dependent people, and most of our energy needs are met by using environmentally and socially destructive fuels.

4) The trip made me think about how we conceptualize land ownership. There was an audible gasp in the room when we learned that energy companies lay claim to 75% of the land in West Virginia. Ralph Dunkin, the bishop of the West Virginia-Western Maryland Synod described how when he purchased his house he had to sign away the land rights. Should some great natural resource be found under his home, energy companies have rights to it. The land and the house would be purchased from him and he would be forced to move. Others we spoke with expressed fear of that happening, especially in this economy when fair market is substantially less than it was a year ago. This system and our collective response gave rise to lots of thinking that will be the subject of a future post (quick preview: we need to rethink the idea of land ownership).

5) Coal is a complex issue, and solutions to the problems it presents are a long way off. We are a very energy consumptive society. And we are only growing in our energy “needs” as we become increasingly dependent on portable devices such as cell phones, Blackberrys, iPods, and the like. Coal is abundant, and one of the few fossil fuels to which we have direct access. In short, in spite of all the problems that coal introduces (carbon emissions, environmental degradation, water concerns, land rights, and so on), we will still continue to mine and burn coal. This will be particularly true in the immediate future–a recent article in the Congressional Quarterly describes how Democrats from coal producing states are dictating a new coal agenda to the chagrin of Republicans from oil producing states.

What seems to me to be the way forward is consuming less energy both directly and indirectly. This of course introduces new problems. For one, in a depressed economy, do we really want to encourage everyone to consume less? For another, in states like West Virginia, coal is the only game in town. Stop using coal, and the tax revenue that is used for public services such as schools and hospitals dips, leading to more social problems.

When I find myself in a catch-22 like this (and the longer I’m in this job, the more I find myself thinking about rocks and hard places), I wonder how to best accompany those who are poor. What choices should I make that will truly serve their needs and interests? Ideas?

David Creech