I’d like to introduce my friend, Paul Corbit Brown. Paul is an exceptional individual, a human rights photographer who has spent his lifetime traveling the world documenting injustice. Paul is a native West Virginian, who grew up and lives in the heart of the Appalachian mountains where coal mining companies are systematically destroying mountains, communities and the climate.
Paul is in Germany this week. He traveled there to speak to a meeting of bankers from Germany, Austria and Switzerland, several of whom provide finance for the companies that are threatening his home. The following are the notes from his presentation:
Ladies and gentleman, I would first like to thank you for having me here. I am honored to have the opportunity to speak to you about this incredibly important situation. Indeed, it is so important that I have spent a week of my life to travel thousands of miles, knowing I will have only 15 minutes to speak to you. I hope I am up to the task. I regret that I cannot address you directly, in your mother tongue, for we do not share that. But I do hope to reach you as a fellow human being.
I will not speak of the images behind me directly, but rather, I will let them play silently in the background as a witness to the irreversible devastation of my home in Appalachia, the second most bio-diverse ecosystem in the world, and the poverty, sickness, suffering and death of many people at the hands of the coal industry.
Martin Luther King said, ” We must all learn to live together as brothers and sisters or we will all perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”
First, I would like to propose a toast. I ask each of you to raise your glass with me and drink to our shared destiny. I know it isn’t normal to toast with water, but in this case, I think it is highly appropriate because water is one of the few things that all humans, in fact all life on this planet, share. Our planet is 2/3 water and our bodies are more than 3/4 water. And so it is true that whatever any one of us does to the water on this planet, we do to everyone and to all life on earth.
The bottle of water I am holding is water that came from a well in a community near where I live. You would be rightfully disturbed if I told you that you had just shared some of this water, unaware, just like the people in so many communities where coal is mined.
Don’t worry, even if I had shared this water with you, it’s doubtful only one sip of it would harm you very much. But unfortunately, my people have had more than one drink. It is their daily reality. It is the water they use to drink, to cook with, and to bathe themselves and their children.
I will pass this water around so you can see it up close and you can know what it feels like to hold death in your hands. You are even free to smell it, if you dare. I put it in a water bottle from here because it is symbolic of the very real fact that financing this industry anywhere, makes a problem for you here, because it makes your bank complicit in the system that creates this poison water.
The effluents of mining, preparing and burning coal include mercury, chromium, selenium, cadmium, lead and arsenic- just to name a few. Heavy metal poisoning is forever. Once it is ingested into your body, it stays there and, like radiation, it accumulates until it kills you. And even worse, large amounts of this poisoning have begun to cause genetic mutations in aquatic wildlife near my home. These mutations will eventually work their way up the food chain to us, humans, who on our current course of environmental devastation, won’t stay at the top of this chain for long.
The good news is that we really needn’t worry about saving the earth. She has been through several mass extinctions already. We aren’t really destroying the earth, we are simply and rapidly making it unfit for human life. This is proven by the fact that 4,000 additional Appalachians die each year in the areas where coal is mined and burned.
Death to my people doesn’t come quickly from the barrel of a gun. It comes slowly from the simple act of drawing water from the kitchen faucet. There is no difference in killing me slow or killing me fast.
Coal in general, and mountaintop removal mining in particular, is far more than an environmental disaster. The production and use of coal is an egregious human rights violation of epic proportions. It is a living, waking nightmare.
The question in front of us today is, “Why should you not finance mountaintop removal mining?” If, after hearing me talk and seeing the photographs of the way my communities and our ecosystem are being destroyed, isn’t enough, I will give you another reason. You represent the banking industry. Banks exist for one very simply reason: to make a profit.
The science has finally arrived to prove what we in Appalachia have always known: coal is killing us. We now have more than 22 peer reviewed scientific studies that show how coal is irreversibly destroying our water and our health. These studies prove that people who live in areas around MTR are far more likely to suffer from heart attacks, cancer, respiratory diseases and are even more likely to have children with birth defects.
The science is here and the lawyers will soon follow. Several large cases have already been heard in the courts, with tens of millions of dollars being rewarded to those who have suffered because of coal. This is only the beginning. The courts may finally force the coal industry to pay the true cost of its profits, the human cost- which until now, had been an externalized and hidden cost.
Many in the coal industry point to the jobs that coal creates. “Look at all we’ve given you,” they say.
And I answer,” Yes. I see all you’ve given me every day. I watch my father gasping for his next breath, just like my grandfathers did. All of them victims of Black Lung disease. I see children dying of brain cancer and my own mother suffering through two fights with cancer. I see the communities left in ravages after you make your profit and leave. I see the five counties in my state that produce the most coal are among the poorest counties in my entire country. And I see you pointing to the food you have laid upon our tables, for a time, as being merely a distraction to the fact that you have poisoned the vessel from which we drink.”
As human beings with a hearts and minds, we should not need to wait for government legislation in order to do the right thing. Financing coal is exactly and simply financing the poisoning of Appalachian people and our planet. Why do you need to wait for the government to tell you it’s wrong?
Coal is a barbaric and outdated method for producing heat and energy. There are ways as yet unimagined to do all that coal has done and more. Rather than mining our mountains and destroying our water, invest your best money and efforts in mining the human imagination and the untapped potential for human creativity. The energy in coal pales in comparison to the unlimited and inexhaustible fire of the human spirit.
A good investment should be one for the future, rather than one of the past.
In hindsight, can you imagine investing in chariots and stagecoaches when the automobile was first introduced?
If you can’t do it for my children, do it for your own. There is only one water and one air on this planet and, ultimately, it is shared by all of us. Would you want your children to drink this water and breath this toxic air? How would you feel to know that someone in another country was actually realizing a profit from the suffering and reduced life spans in your own community? I will not sit idly by, offering my life as a mechanism of sacrifice for anyone’s profits.
Stop financing coal.
In closing, I would like to share this:
Folks often confuse what they do, with who they are. Many people regard bankers as the greedy ones who only care about money and their profit. But I propose a different view, I suggest we look at bankers as those who sit at the right hand of the Architects of the Future. The architect can dream it, but the dream won’t manifest unless you, the bankers, finance it.
From this perspective, the future truly lies in your hands. What will you choose to make of it? You can choose who you are by what you do. My father, for instance, was not merely a coal miner. He was a man who chose to work hard, at any peril to himself, to provide for his family and see to our wellbeing. He and my mother always chose to give of themselves for what was best for us and our community. The world is a better place due to the kindness, devotion and generosity they shared.
Although I don’t know you, I have a great belief in each of you. I know each and every one of you has the capacity to change our world for the better. As I leave you, I will offer you this choice:
At the end of your lives, as you say to your children of the world you are leaving them, “I built this world and I now leave it to you”, will you look back with pride or will you look back in regret?
The quality of our future will be measured in much more important terms than simply a financial return on our investments. It will be measured more by our ability to live peacefully with one another and in harmony with the planet that gives us life.
As bankers, I challenge you to stop financing nightmares and begin financing Dreams.