Rick Bass on the Coal Export Action

Montana author and activist Rick Bass participated in the first day of civil disobedience at the Coal Export Action, and was arrested that evening with six other people.  We’re honored to be able to publish the below post, written by Bass, about the moral urgency of the action and what it means to go to jail for energy justice.

The beauty of Otter Creek country and the Tongue River itself, and the integrity of the Montana values in the lives of the people who live and work there, is enough to lead even a sane and moderate person—say, an ex-geologist much as myself–to lash themselves to the bow of a ship. But the ecological devastation to this quiet corner of Montana, and the economic chicanery, is only the smallest part. If going to jail will help Montanans not sell dirty coal to China, whose people don’t have our freedom to protest—coal we would never dare burn in Montana—then I think we will be seeing a lot more arrests in the future. I hope so, anyway. If this is not a moral issue, none any longer exist.

Where to begin, trying to illuminate what is going on in this farthest corner of Montana? The story today is the same mistaken story with which white Montana first entered this groove of history: giving up our  natural resources, crudely taken, to outsiders, as a subsidized gift to the world; the blithe or wilful self-identification by Montanans, right from the beginning, as being unworthy of anything other than a colony for Eastern business establishments.  The fact that the proposed Otter Creek sale  is a complex and financially sophisticated play to help guide the rest of the developing world into building coalburning infrastructure by getting them hooked first on our below-cost coal that’s too dirty to burn in developed countries, at which point the coal and railroad cartels in our country will begin selling the rest of the U.S.’s coal at higher prices (though in that pricing there will be no accountability for social and ecological damage), makes the plan no less coarse and brutal.

Surface mining of 1.5 billion tons of sub-bituminous coal –the upper Powder River Basin is some of the dirtiest coal in the world—and sending it in dozens of miles of open boxcars throughout the West each day, to the defenseless people of China, who will have to breathe it before it is windswept back to us, arriving back to our tender lungs and brains in about
two weeks—is just wrong. It’s against every law that Montanans understand and believe in. It is not the Montana way, and yet it is happening, while we just sit at those railroad crossings and watch it pass by.

It was awesome, being arrested and dressed in the orange pajamas, with those horrible brown plastic houseslippers, and being housed indefinitely in the reading room of the Helena jail, where the police and booking personnel could not have been nicer: like a scene from “Raising Arizona.”  Too, it felt good to be stirring around a bit, after so much marble-floor butt-sitting during the sit-in at the capital. Montana and the Powder River Basin—and Otter Creek, and the Tongue River—are but a tiny gate that opens into the terrifying world of dirty coal, but our weakness—our small standing in the world—is a strength. We may not be able to defend the world, but we can defend one gate; and when investors in these schemes start to understand that, they will devise other strategies that do not involve a railroad through the ranches of the Tongue River, and which do not send miles of boxcars, swirling unregulated toxic coaldust through major Montana cities and small towns alike, night and day for the next fifty years, brake-cars squalling and hissing, boxcars clanging.

I’m particularly grateful to my fellow cellmates for their good cheer, and to our attorneys. I’m hopeful also that through the long course of this engagement the voice of local people in the affected areas—from the ranches of the Tongue River and the lands of native people to the suburbs of Seattle—will be heard, and part of whatever solutions emerge from this terribly mis-thought ploy to re-make the world’s energy market into one that becomes addicted to the most poisonous fuel of all. There are laws being broken—closest to home, the Montana Constitution is being trampled, with its promise of clean air and water—and while we might have tarried a little too long at the capital, it sure doesn’t feel like wrongdoing. To be honest, there’s not much that feels righter.

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