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What It Means To Be A Resource Colony

(Editor's Note: This is the fourth blog post in an ongoing series about proposed coal export terminals in the Pacific Northwest. Upcoming blog posts will examine the potential impact coal export terminals could have on the region's health and environment.)

The television comedy program Portlandia likes to poke fun at the culture of the Pacific Northwest. According to the show, the region is home to bicycle-riding, dumpster-diving, organic-free range-grass fed-biodynamic tree-huggers. And while Portlandia promotes a well-hewn stereotype of the region, there’s something to be said for its portrayal.

Residents of the Pacific Northwest really do care about silly things like, oh, say, the environment and the health of their communities. After all, Portland is annually recognized as one of the greenest and most bike-friendly cities in the nation. And the state of Washington cut a deal just last year to shutter its only coal-fired power plant, located in Centralia, by 2025.

That’s why the region’s battle over six proposed shipping terminals that would send American coal overseas seems so odd in so many ways.

Trying to turn the eco-friendly Pacific Northwest into the coal export hub of North America is like trying to turn Texas into a sprawling communal ashram—it just doesn’t fit. But beyond being a bad fit for the region, the six proposed coal export terminals in Washington and Oregon serve as a harbinger for what the region might become. Will the Pacific Northwest pursue a clean energy future, or will it risk the health of its environment and citizens by becoming the shipping arm of a global coal resource colony?

Farmer, activist and environmental author Wendell Berry is more than familiar with the idea of a resource colony. Berry represents the fifth generation of his family to farm a plot of land in Henry County, Kentucky. He has written extensively about the plight of rural American farmers and has examined their relationship with the nation’s urban centers. In an essay titled “Conserving Communities,” Berry explains the situation:

I am talking here about the common experience, the common fate, of rural communities in our country for a long time… The message is plain enough, and we have ignored it for too long: the great, centralized economic entities of our time do not come into rural places in order to improve them by “creating jobs.” They come to take as much of value as they can take, as cheaply and as quickly as they can take it… They are not interested in the good health—economic or natural or human—of any place on this earth. And if you should undertake to appeal or complain to one of these great corporations on behalf of your community, you would discover something most remarkable: you would find that these organizations are organized expressly for the evasion of responsibility. They are structures in which, as my brother says, “the buck never stops.”

What Berry is describing is the transformation of rural America into a resource colony for the country’s urbanized areas. The same thing is on the verge of happening to the Pacific Northwest. The coal industry is busy unearthing every ton of coal it can from Powder River Basin mines in Wyoming and Montana, with the desire to ship it across the Pacific via Washington and Oregon ports. For the coal industry, the Pacific Northwest is simply a means to an end, and as Berry reminds us, industry has zero concern for the region’s economic, natural or human health.

Supporters of the coal export terminals are telling Pacific Northwest communities that they should be falling all over themselves thanking the coal industry for the few hundred jobs (many temporary) that would be created by the export terminals and to just never mind the associated environmental and public health risks. The message from the coal industry is that the Pacific Northwest is to become the shipping hub of the American coal resource colony—like it or lump it.

A resource colony is a plaything for industry and corporations to exploit, despoil and leave to ruin. The last thing your bioregion or community wants to become is a resource colony. Again, just ask Wendell Berry. His short essay titled “17 Rules for a Sustainable Local Community,” sums it all up in his Rule Number Six: “Develop properly scaled value-adding industries for local products to ensure that the community does not become merely a colony of national or global economy.”

Tags:  Coal, coal exports