Month: April 2018

On Blankenship and Cargo Ships

My novel, Rock of Ages, is about how different the two places I call home are from one another but I want to talk about a big way they’re the same. Their landscapes—physical, human, and economic, are shaped by exploitation, driven by the country’s endless pursuit of convenience at the cost of all else.
Coal is getting some attention. How Appalachia’s butchered mountains sustain America’s demands for endless energy on demand, its dirty rivers growing dirtier while wealthy people far away complain that solar panels are too ugly or that wind power is too noisy.

At home, folks argue that coal is good for the economy. So many jobs! Others remind us that these jobs aren’t sustainable. They aren’t well-paid. They aren’t safe. And yet, Don Blankenship is likely going to win a senate seat.
Meanwhile, here in the Inland Empire of Southern California, I get the same feeling in the pit of my stomach as I drive by the newest in an endless expanse of warehouses being erected.

They have to be talking to each other, these folks. They could switch places and no one would know the difference, their words are so similar. 52,767 jobs, local economist John Husing says, touting Amazon’s positive impact on the region. He doesn’t mention the health risks of these jobs—long hours with no breaks, people working through injuries, nor the environmental impact on the region.

A little background: When people demand fast free shipping of goods, it means the goods have to wait here in the US to be bought. This requires giant warehouses—acres and acres of them. The goods are shipped from China in massive cargo ships, some as long as four soccer fields, and arrive in the ports of Long Beach and LA. Because real estate there is too expensive, the city-sized warehouses are all here, about 60 miles East. Residents get some poor-paying jobs, and pay for them with respiratory health issues caused by the diesel trucks and trains that go back and forth from the warehouses.


Just like West Virginia, the poorest, most vulnerable residents are affected the worst, and are made to feel like they’re lucky because they have access to jobs. Just like in West Virginia, no one tells these folks that their jobs will soon be automated, and they’ll be left without employment, still staring at the giant white buildings in their backyards—as sad a site as a mountain with its top chopped off.

I am guilty. I order things from Amazon. I don’t unplug my cell phone charger. Even knowing all of this, my daily actions feel so far removed from it, it’s hard to bring myself to inconvenience, even a little bit. I think it’s probably one of the inevitabilities of capitalism. But we have to. These aren’t the only places this kind of thing happens. In North Carolina, a town is being overrun by waste product supplying pork products to China. Farmers toil in fields for low wages to bring us the produce we toss into our children’s lunch boxes. Around the world, people and the earth are suffering because it is so hard to make the cognitive connection between the things we consume and their sources.

I’ll always feel that pull to go home to West Virginia—the guilt of escaping when others stayed to make things better. But this is my home now, and there are things I can do to help here too. The warehouses will be built. The coal will be mined. But I can do my best to maintain an awareness of my own consumption and its costs, even though it’s hard. And I can definitely call politicians and economists on their bullshit.