On Monday, Nov. 11, two “pollinators” from the Beehive Design Collective came to Breidenstein Hall to give a “picture lecture” on the collective’s recent narrative mural “The True Cost of Coal,” which illustrates the historical, environmental, economic and social factors surrounding the issue of mountaintop removal mining (MTR), and resistance to it. Using the massive mural as a backdrop, the two presenters, Molly Shae, 26, and Kyle Gibson, 27, broke down the intricacies of the detailed graphic, which the Collective’s website calls a “multi-tool for understanding the big picture, how we’re all part of the system that demands coal as fuel, and how we can change it.”
About 20 different illustrators worked on the design of this portable black-and white mural. There are paper copies, which are available for sale and sometimes given away by the collective. The group has done several other large-scale projects, each based on the history of exploitation and resistance in a specific region.
Mountaintop removal, a practice that involves the literal blasting away of mountains by companies wishing to extract the coal buried in seams inside them, has devastated at least 500 mountains in Appalachia, a region that boasts the most biodiverse hardwood forest in the world. A thick slurry, coal-industry waste containing toxic chemicals such as arsenic and manganese that is more than twice as heavy as water, has already filled in 2,000 miles worth of important headwaters in Appalachia.
The tops of mountains are re-termed “overburden” by the industry, and, Shea and Gibson explained, the people in areas being mined in this way are also seen as obstacles to profit. The mechanization of coal mining has only strengthened the industry, which has been able to reap higher profits with fewer and fewer employees. As mining techniques grew more extreme, companies became ever more proficient at rendering the landscape inhospitable to life, human or otherwise.
The presenters showed photos of landscapes ripped bare, one in which a slurry impoundment (which looked like a giant gray pond) at the top of a hill threatened to break loose and devastate the town in a valley below it. The industry has been responsible for some of the biggest environmental disasters in the country, and continually lies about the impacts of these disasters as well as the environmental repercussions of its workaday practices. The effects of pollution from this type of mining are shockingly evident: in one West Virginia town, 90% of adults had to have their gallbladders removed; in another town, there are astronomical rates of brain cancer. Widespread birth defects are another sign that the land is poisoned.
But the coal industry continues to devastate the land, largely immune to bad press and meaningful government intervention because of its wealth and influence within the interlocking systems of financial and political power in the United States.
The collective spent many months in Appalachia researching for the creation of this mural, interviewing local citizens about the impact the mining industry has on their lives and maintaining an alliance with activists. They documented the struggles of all they met, from those who feared the industry’s retribution too much to attach their names to their stories, to those who travelled thousands of miles in order to chain themselves to trees in defiance of the mining companies.
But it would be misleading to say that MTR is purely a human problem. That is why, when members of the collective translate the stories they have gathered into metaphors, they use region-specific plants and animals to tell the story.
“Miner Frog,” who suffers from back pain, looks out at the viewer with heavy-lidded eyes, rubbing his lower back. In another scene, Miner Frog receives addictive pain pills from a donkey (“who he knew was a jackass,” explained Gibson) with the logos of his big-pharma “sponsors,” Nascar-style, studding his lab coat. By using animals to tell stories, the collective’s members are able to layer multiple levels of meaning into the work: the illustration of the Miner Frog character is based on the gray tree frog, which is an “indicator species” in the region.
“If there’s something wrong in the ecosystem, the gray tree frog gets sick,” Shea explained. “When the system isn’t working for this frog, that’s an indication of a broken system.”
Other reasons why the collective uses animals and insects instead of people are to relate the work to universal fables such as the “tortoise and the hare,” to make visible the “unheard voices,” and to remove any racial, cultural, or gender-based associations from characters in the narratives. Shea pointed out that if the mural included human characters, she would most likely look for a female around her age who dressed like her and looked like her, and would be most sympathetic to that character. Also, she said, “If I were to draw, say, a white dude up there at the top [where the levers of industry are being pulled and corporate propaganda is produced], that would partly be to suggest that he was responsible for all these things, and maybe that, say, I was not responsible.”
Shea and Gibson emphasized the fact that no one escapes culpability for the damage being done to our environment and is it on us to change the system, but, as Gibson said, “We can’t shop our way out of the problem.”
A section of the poster lampooned the widespread “greenwashing” of products—when advertisers claim a fundamentally unsustainable product created and distributed within a fundamentally unsustainable system is sustainable—and consumer culture. The heart of the solution to the problems created by a globalized economy, the collective shows in a section of the mural, is a shift to smaller-scale, localized economies, where citizens within communities have self-determination and “sacrifice zones” such as the areas devastated by mountaintop-removal mining will not be tolerated.
Present in the audience were activists Emmakate Martin, a Penn Manor grad and organic farmer who is part of an anti-fracking group called the Shalefield Organizing Committee, and Josh Graupera, who studies painting and printmaking at Millersville. Martin and Graupera originally met members of the collective when they were doing anti-MTR work in West Virginia a few years ago. When the presenters were done, they gave Martin the floor. She talked about the Committee’s Shalefield Listening Project, which is an effort to gather stories from residents of Sullivan County in order to assess the impact of hydraulic fracturing in the county, share the stories, and organize resistance to the companies who carry out this damaging practice.
To see “The True Cost of Coal” and other murals by the Beehive Collective, go to beehivecollective.org.
For more information on the Shalefield Organizing Committee and Listening Project go to http://shalefieldorganizing.org/.