Peace Project speaker discusses impact of mountaintop removal

Cat Zakrzewski

Northwestern’s Peace Project hosted “The True Cost of Coal: Mountaintop Removal and the Fight for Our Future” on Monday night, which featured an elaborate mural focusing on the history and impact of coal removal methods.

Tyler Norman from the Beehive Design Collective, an initiative that uses hand-drawn artwork to describe complex issues, presented the mural, titled “The True Cost of Coal,” which focused on mountaintop coal removal’s implication for both local communities and the nation.

Mountains are like cakes, Norman said, with layers of coal resting in between layers of bedrock. In order to access this coal, mining companies use explosives to remove the mountaintops.

“It’s almost impossible to believe that it’s true,” said Norman, explaining the complexities of the process to a crowd of about 25 people.

This removal results in a wide variety of ecological effects, Norman said. In Appalachia, an area that has been damaged by mountaintop removal, Norman said hundreds of mountains that formerly appeared on maps no longer exist. The process has also damaged community water sources, he said.

By lowering mountains and raising valleys, Norman said mountaintop removal has transformed beautiful land into a “devastated moonscape.” Though companies argue that such leveling leads to economic development, Norman said it has contributed to the financial decline in Appalachia because the land is most frequently used to build Walmarts, private prisons and golf courses, which do not provide high-paying jobs to residents.

Additionally, many residents do not own the land they inhabit, and Norman said this gives them very few rights.

“(The mural is) meant to be a tool that people in that region can use to tell their own stories and organize,” Norman said. The Beehive Collective organized the stories from people living in areas affected by coal mining into a chronological mural that tracks the history of the land in five different chapters, from “The Land” to “Regeneration.”

“We try to create a story that is both grounded in a real place with real people and also crafted in such a way that it represents these widespread patterns and issues that are really global in scope,” Norman said.

“The True Cost of Coal” is the result of two and a half years of work. The ten artists involved in the project ranged from former scientific illustrators to previous tattoo artists. In the past, the Beehive Collective has focused on other social issues, such as free trade, biotechnology, the drug war in Colombia and infrastructure development in Central America.

“Our goal is to take art out of galleries and create an educational model that allows us to tackle these hard, heavy topics,” Norman said.

Some of the images in the mural include a frog with back pain, which is supposed to symbolize the larger issue of miners receiving workers’ compensation and health insurance. Norman said companies often discourage miners from seeking these benefits and these employees comply out of fear of losing their jobs. To explain the effect of consumer culture on American coal consumption, Norman used a caricature of an “environmentally friendly” shopping mall. He said consumers often do not understand that buying “green” products does not make up for the negative environmental effects caused by buying other items harmful to the Earth.

“I loved how the poster had the chronology of the story on the individual level, community level and national level,” said Weinberg freshman Kaitlin Hansen.

The Peace Project is an umbrella organization for many other social justice groups on campus, including The Protest magazine, said the group’s treasurer and The Protest editor in chief Matt Kovac. The group sponsored the event with the help of Northwestern University Conference on Human Rights, Students for Ecological and Environmental Development, Inspire Media and the Roosevelt Institute.

“One of the things that Peace Project really looks for is people who can really speak to interconnections between different social movements,” the Medill sophomore said in regards to the project’s selection process for speakers.

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