Fossil fuels and free speech: both have a price

Fossil fuels and free speech: both have a price

There is often a price to opposing a company town’s corporate master.

surface coal mine in Gillette, Wyoming

Surface coal mine in Gillette, Wyoming. © 2008 Greg Goebel (CC BY-SA 2.0)

© 2008 Greg Goebel (CC BY-SA 2.0)


The Sierra Club’s anti-coal slogans include:

Coal: Party Like It’s 1899

Coal: It's Called a Fossil Fuel For a Reason

Coal: The Other Second-Hand Smoke

Gallows humor is funny, unless it’s your neck in the noose. Until recently, my opposition to fossil fuels was more idealistic than concrete. Like anyone concerned about anthropogenic climate change, I found it easy to call for the “end of coal”—until it struck close to home.

In Wyoming, March 31, 2016 was Black Thursday. With the price of coal plummeting, the nation’s two largest coal companies paid their executives large bonuses and laid off nearly 500 miners. In Laramie, my UU fellowship’s social action committee continued to ally with the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, but they also opened a dialogue about caring for unemployed miners and their families. I was proud that we took a moral stance in a complex situation playing out on the other side of the state. Then, the end of coal came home on May 13.

Two-thirds of Wyoming’s revenues come from fossil fuels—and state monies are the largest source of support to the University of Wyoming. So, the governor cut $45 million from the university’s budget. The administration was told to develop “worst case” plans. And I was told that unless alternatives could be found, I’d be terminated in 2018—along with all the other staff and faculty, tenured or not, in the Department of Philosophy.

Why would a university eliminate philosophy? It could be that we’re small (philosophy is a notoriously difficult subject, so we don’t have hundreds of majors or award plentiful A’s); or we’re expendable (despite being vital to a credible university, few other programs strictly require our courses); or we’re dangerous (critical thinking threatens power structures).

We are, in fact, demonstrably dangerous. Harvey Hix recently published his collection of morally searing, politically critical poems, American Anger. Harvey wrote that he “lives in a state that, although in it occurred a murder notorious enough that the federal Hate Crime Prevention Act bears its victim’s name, remains one of the five states in the union with no state hate-crimes legislation.” And my book, Behind the Carbon Curtain: The Energy Industry, Political Censorship and Free Speech, is slated for release next spring. The state legislature and university administration are well aware that my research tells a grim story of how fossil fuel corporations have coerced public leaders into silencing their critics (Art & Energy: Coal's reaction to 'Carbon Sink' sculpture reveals the power of art—and the essence of education and Behind the Carbon Curtain: Art and Freedom in Wyoming).

Did exposing the collusion of energy executives and public officials paint a bull’s-eye on my department? Under pressure from corporations and the legislature, the university has fired scientists and destroyed art. Is this another warning to those who speak truth to power? If I put my colleagues in harm’s way, it was with their consent, as they courageously endorsed my work and rejected self-censorship.

The administrators and politicians will, of course, deny any connection, as they did with previous cases of censorship. And payback is probably not the whole story (the sociologists and statisticians are also on the chopping block). But there is often a price to opposing a company town’s corporate master.

Maybe this is the end of coal—and the end of my career as a university professor. But it’s not the end of my work as an ecologist-turned-philosopher. The story of power and justice is an epic tale. In expressing his faith about the rightness of abolitionism, Theodore Parker maintained:

I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.

For my part, I do not pretend to grasp the sociopolitical universe; my eye reaches only to 2018 these days. I cannot extrapolate the fate of fossil fuels or free speech. But I am sure that the arc does not bend on its own.