This past Wednesday, Free the Planet brought Larry Gibson to Pitt to speak. Larry has been named one of CNN’s Heroes, has been on ABC’s 20/20, has appeared before the United Nations, and is the face of activism against mountaintop removal. But what struck me most is that Larry is a real and genuine person. Hearing him speak about the travesty that is mountaintop removal made me lose faith in humanity – how can we allow such an environmental and humanitarian disaster, that we’d normally associate with third world countries, occur in our own? Getting to know Larry as an activist, however, restored my faith in activism.
Lately, I’ve been incredibly cynical about activists and their tactics. Today, “mainstream activism” is just as manufactured as politics. It is just as much of a game as the system it’s trying to change. Activism, like party politics, has become cookie-cutter. With the advent of social media, national campaigns have become possible, and while it’s great to have a cohesive message across the nation, it doesn’t have to be an assembly-line creation. I’m sick of “toolkits” telling you exactly how to create and perform your action so that it can be just like every other action on this issue. I’m sick of talking points sent out via email across the nation – if you oppose something, you should be able to state why using your own intellect and your own words. If you can’t adequately do that, then I don’t think you know enough about the issue to hold such a strong opinion on it. But it’s almost as if organizers today discourage that – just like partisan politics, you have to mindlessly repeat their rhetoric. Thanks in part to activism and political involvement, I’ve become great at both writing and recognizing complete fluff. I can write a whole paragraph that sounds so elegant and powerful that it moves you to action, even though when you look past the word fluff, you can see there’s not much there at all. Activism, like politics, has lost its personality, which makes it hard for me to hold on to my passion. Larry Gibson, however, shattered this image of modern activism that has been troubling me lately, and has given me hope.
Larry has what activism today too often lacks – personality, and his own individual and unique stories and reasons for doing what he does. This made him an incredible inspiration. He was also a great character. He’d jump from one point to another drastically different one so quickly that for a moment you’d wonder how in the world he managed that transition, but then you’d get so wrapped up in his new narrative. And Larry had so many stories – sad ones and funny ones. And he had such a unique way of telling them – if you listened to him for only thirty seconds, you might wonder why the heck you were listening to this man and his ramblings and even what they had to do with mountaintop removal, but then out of nowhere he’d reach an eloquent and powerful message illustrated by his anecdote. You’d be left in awe, thinking about what he just said, and then just as quickly you’d find yourself in the middle of another anecdote.
One time, in particular, I was wondering why on Earth Larry was talking about his affinity for barbecued chicken, and I was still confused yet also amused when he went on to say that one time while eating some, he felt something sandpaper-like on his cheek, and it turns out there was a black bear right there, licking the sauce off his cheek. I was captivated by this story, but right as I was wondering what on Earth it had to do with mountaintop removal, Larry sprung the profound implication of this anecdote on us: they used to not see black bears very often on his mountain, because they had a vast swath of wilderness to roam on. But now, with his land pretty much being the only intact land left on his mountain, the black bears have nowhere else to go, and end up nearer to homes in larger numbers than they’d ever been before.
Another story told in a similar fashion was when Larry was the keynote speaker at some Christian college I don’t remember the name of. Apparently he jumped onto a guy sitting in the first row and said, “If I were holding a gun up to your head right now and shot you, would it be murder?” The answer was obviously yes, and I was really wondering where he was going with this. I soon found out – “So is it still murder,” he said, “if I were to kill you slowly?” Yes, it is. And that is exactly what the extractive industry is doing to the poorest people in Appalachia – slurry ponds open to the air, right near communities and schools, schools with asthma rates of ninety percent because of the horrid air quality…
Larry was talking about how they eventually kicked him out of the United Nations because he refused to give the floor up. But Australian delegates were moved by what he had to say, and asked him to accompany them to talk about it more when they met with the U.S. Larry also met president Obama once. He saw Obama in two places, and Obama recognized him because of his neon Keepers of the Mountains gear. Obama asked what he could do for Larry, and Larry told him to pay attention to the War of Appalachia, where three and a half million tons of dynamite are used daily to turn mountains into moonscapes. Obama told Larry that he should submit his concerns to his state environmental regulatory agency. Larry essentially took that as a joke; everyone knows it wouldn’t result it anything.
Larry had some strikingly accurate ways to describe the process of mountaintop removal. It was literally turning a mountain upside down, he said. First, they cut down all the trees. But instead of putting this timber on the market (and West Virginia has some pretty good quality timber), they just throw it into a neighboring valley – potential income for a state struggling with poverty, just cast away to get to the coal underneath. Are we so ravenously addicted to this substance that we can’t even take the process slower to maximize benefits? Next comes the soil. Three inches of topsoil takes three thousand years to form, but a matter of days to dump into a valley next to a mountain. The mountain is then effectively just rock, the rest of it having been turned upside down. And the reclamation process that the industry claims works? Larry knows better, and has the perfect analogy for it. “Reclamation,” he said, “is like putting lipstick on a corpse.” You can’t hope to redo what it took nature millennia to craft.
An even better story was when Larry attended a speech by George Bush. They weren’t supposed to allow signs, but Larry wrapped a sign around his body and went in anyway. It said, very simply, “Stop Mountaintop Removal.” Well, he held it up and was kicked out by these guys (to paraphrase him: by men in black, all in black suits, sunglasses, definitely secret service agents), but they made a vital mistake: they didn’t take away his sign, and he snuck back in before they even returned. Several more times, I think he said, he was kicked out but got back in. For such a cute old man, he was definitely a troublemaker. “I’ve been arrested with the best of them,” he said, and he definitely was. One time, when protesting in front of the White House with tons of people from Appalachia, he said “I’m not paying my fee!” with regard to his arrest. “What I’m doing is legal, what they [the extractive industry] are doing is not!” Then, from behind him, he heard someone else say, “I’m not paying mine either!” It was Dr. James Hansen, NASA’s leading climatologist.
There were some darker stories Larry told too. Like the drive-by shootings he’s had at his house, the bullet holes that dot his front door, the dogs he had – one was shot and the other actually hung, simply because Larry refused to give up the land that his family has lived on for centuries to such a destructive cause. He sees the harm that it does to Appalachia – southern West Virginia is one of the poorest places in our nation, and the people cling to the coal industry because they think it’s the only jobs they’ll ever have, but the industry is screwing them over not only by harming their health, but also with the practice of mountaintop removal. It takes much less workers to extract coal this way than through traditional mining methods, and systematically destroys the potential for another sector of the West Virginia economy – outdoorsy tourism. West Virginia, Wild and Wonderful – but slowly, thanks to mountaintop removal, becoming moonscaped and toxic.
Larry brings people on tours throughout his property so they can see the devastating effects of the process. He talked, almost tearfully, about how the birds don’t chirp their way into springtime anymore. “If Ray Charles came to my house,” he joked, “he wouldn’t be able to tell if it was spring or winter, ‘cause there’re no more birds!” Kids who are brought on his tours often see the dead birds on the ground and asked Larry why he is killing the birds. Larry doesn’t have the heart to tell them that it’s the air that is killing the birds, because then they’d wonder what they were doing breathing that air.
Larry Gibson is the kind of activist that is become rarer and rarer, but the kind we need more of. He is a genuine West Virginia man who won’t call himself an environmentalist, but merely a concerned citizen. He is so concerned for his land, his family and friends (a completely disproportionate amount of whom have died of various cancers due to their proximity to extractive processes), his neighbors, and the people of Appalachia that he has dedicated over thirty years of his life to this struggle. “I’ve been fighting for you before you were even born,” Larry told our young audience. The coal companies told Larry that his land was worth $65 million, but even that wouldn’t convince him to give it up – he would not let his land join the acres of land that were sacrificed to satisfy America’s greedy energy demands for only a mere fleeting moment.
Larry Gibson is the face of the struggle against mountaintop removal. He has endured death threats, health complications affecting his community, his family, and himself, and the incessant dismantling of the beautiful mountains and ecosystems surrounding him – there is no better face that this struggle could have.