The past week has been nothing short of a whirlwind adventure, pun very much intended. We’ve spent countless hours over the last several days fighting uphill against blustering headwinds that have pushed my morale to the limit, yet still provided a welcomed challenge. I have been given the unique opportunity to interact with individuals in rural Montana, from coal miners to energy-innovating hippies. Each of these experiences has allowed me to listen and gain new insight on the ways in which different individuals interact with energy and climate change. These experiences, though centered in the west, are applicable on a broader scale in furthering my understanding of the energy debate that so prominently divides our country.
While it has been a privilege to speak with individuals with whom I share common ideals and ethics, the real learning has come from interacting with those who have opposite viewpoints from my own. The most unique experience I’ve had thus far in regards to energy and climate change has been our visit to Signal Peak Coal Mine outside of Roundup, MT. It is one thing to discuss how a coal mine functions and tarnishes the environment, but it is another to experience one firsthand. I wasn’t sure what to expect since we were a group of liberal-minded college students touring a coal mine on bicycles, but to my surprise we were greeted with kindness and respect.
Our tour guides, Byron and Sam, were both surface workers, meaning they don’t participate in the actual extraction of the coal from underground but are tasked with monitoring the aboveground process of crushing, washing, and loading the coal onto trains. Wearing hard hats, steel-toed boots, and papery white jumpers, our group was given the opportunity to interact with each step of this process and ask our guides questions about their work. The experience itself was quite a trip, none of us escaping the tour without coal covering our skin and tinting our clothes. Nevertheless, I think I can speak for the group when I say all of us left with a new respect and understanding for coal miners. Byron and Sam, as well as the other miners we met in passing, all work tirelessly to provide not only for their families, but also those who receive the energy they are playing a part in creating. While they are proud of the work they do, they are also scared; scared for the security of their jobs and the unknowns of the declining fossil fuel industry. For them, the mine is a good job, one that provides them with economic stability, benefits, and a tight knit community.
In our class discussions, we have touched on the idea of privilege and the implications it can have over our lives. In pursuing a college education we have privilege. In having the opportunity to participate in this course, we have privilege. It’s become clear to me that it is one thing to have privilege, but to recognize one’s privilege and then leverage it for change and understanding, is another. After coming to this realization, I am now more aware of just how important it is to show compassion and understanding towards those who may not have the same opportunities as me, as well as those who may have different values than me. Like Byron and Sam, I too hope for financial stability and job security one day, just because our politics and views on the environment may differ, does not mean we can’t share common goals and break bread.