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COAL SCHOOLS | Saving the Planet in Dramatic Style

By Brian Kevin

In a time when attention spans are measured in milliseconds, campaigners against dirty energy need creativity and flair. Agitprop, the highly politicized theater that was all the rage in the 1960s and '70s, is alive and well on college campuses—now in the service of combating coal.


Illustration by Tim Gough
Consider flash mobs, those lightly Dadaistic, made-for-YouTube happenings in which bands of socially networked strangers come together to "spontaneously" dance in malls or to board subways pantless. In St. Louis last November, more than 100 Washington University students quietly infiltrated a reception following a coal-centric energy symposium. On cue, they froze, raised fists, unfurled BEYOND COAL banners, and announced by megaphone an alternate, student-organized event.

Last September, 30 Pennsylvania students from the University of Pittsburgh, Chatham University, and Carnegie Mellon University intercepted a tour bus carrying attendees of the International Pittsburgh Coal Conference. The captive audience was then treated to a musical spectacle co-orchestrated by the Sierra Student Coalition, featuring a choreographed dance-off between a wind turbine and a dirty smokestack.


Illustration by Tim Gough
Not all student protests resemble episodes of Glee, however. In March 2009, a coalition of Appalachian groups organized a somber "die-in" at the Knoxville headquarters of the nation's largest coal consumer, the Tennessee Valley Authority utility. To symbolize the deaths caused by the coal industry, students from Mountain Justice Spring Break and other groups fell to the ground on TVA's steps, and 14 were arrested for defying police orders to clear the sidewalk. In Denver, University of Colorado students and others representing the state's Power Past Coal chapter played dead twice in the past year—once outside the state's public health department and again in front of Xcel Energy's downtown offices, protesting a new coal-fired plant in nearby Pueblo.


Illustration by Tim Gough
Students at Ohio's Oberlin College ditched their dorm bunks for several SLEEP-INs last November, crashing outside to protest the dirty energy that powers their residence halls. Nearby colleges Hiram and Baldwin-Wallace held similar campus camp-outs, and in December, students from across Ohio sacked out on the lawn of the statehouse in Columbus, asking legislators to commit to 100 percent clean energy by 2020.


Illustration by Tim Gough
To illustrate the amount of coal burned daily to power Warren Wilson College in Asheville, North Carolina, students hauled a ton of coal onto campus in the back of a dump truck as a form of street theater. (The school does purchase 100 percent offsets, however.) Working with the resources at hand, activists at the University of Minnesota and the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse built and then demolished snow "mountains" to show the savagery of mountaintop-removal mining.


Illustration by Tim Gough
Taking a cue from '90s eco-icon Julia Butterfly Hill, recent grads with Climate Ground Zero in West Virginia's Coal River Valley occupied two tulip poplars last August. The tree-sit prevented a week's worth of blasting at a mountaintop-removal site on Cherry Pond Mountain run by Massey Energy. They were eventually driven down by security guards employing sleep-deprivation tactics, including flashing bright lights, sounding air horns, and banging on metal buckets.

This January, another arboreal occupation on nearby Coal River Mountain prompted a meeting between coalfield activists and West Virginia governor Joe Manchin. Though blasting continues at the site, the governor agreed to investigate accusations of lax regulation on the part of the state's Department of Environmental Protection.

Brian Kevin writes about culture, adventure, and travel from Missoula, Montana.

 

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