Students in my Resource Wars of the 21st Century class had an opportunity to engage in on-the-ground and experiential learning throughout the psat semester. The course looked at our historic dependency upon non-renewable fossil fuels—coal, oil, natural gas—as our primary energy sources. Formed from organic material over the course of millions of years, fossil fuels have fueled U.S. and global economic development over the past century (providing a quick and easy fix and fueling our consumptive lives). Yet fossil fuels have been historically embedded in militaristic, repressive regimes abroad, undermining governments in Latin America and elsewhere. Through a political and economic lens, this course looked at the sites and spaces affected by fossil fuel extraction and asked the question, “How and in what ways is our consumption linked to degradation of lands, waterways, and soils?”

To illustrate the links between our consumption of coal and the socio-environmental consequences, students map a commodity chain. From sites of extraction in Appalachia to sites of coal export and coal processing in Anne Arundel County and South Baltimore.

Studying resource wars in West Virginia

My students and I spent three days in Appalachia in mid-April where we live on Kayford Mountain—an active site of mountaintop coal removal mining. Approximately 35 students hiked the Appalachian Trail and heard stories from Keepers of the Mountain, Coal River Mountain Watch, and other environmental organizers about the effects of mountaintop coal removal mining. We visited sites where mountains had been blown up and other sites were coal companies attempted to bring mountains back to their original contours.

Related link: The battle over West Virginia’s coal country

We heard stories about waterways being contaminated by heavy metals and other toxins. We visited historic sites in West Virginia, such as the Mine Wars Museum in Matewan, where we heard about the early history of unionization and fighting for the importance of unions. We visited sites where Mother Jones gave her historic speeches about the abuse of children in the mines and the need to have a five day, eight hour work day.

Following coal from West Virginia to South Baltimore

This trip thrust Towson University students into the world of coal. They experienced what a Resource Colony looks like and how the majority of West Virginians or Appalachians do not benefit from the extraction of coal. Then we followed the transport of coal via CSX trains to Curtis Bay in South Baltimore. Curtis Bay houses the largest coal export pier on the East Coast. Most of the coal is being exported out toward China, Eastern Europe, and Japan. Students learned about CSX as an actor in this community and health consequences tied to open-air coal.

Coal terminal in Curtis Bay, South Baltimore

We then visited the sites in Anne Arundel County of two coal processing plants. Leah Kelly, a lawyer from Environmental Integrity Project served as our tour guide where she spoke about the dangers of open air coal and coal processing (re: burning of coal).

Looking toward renewable energy

The class ended with an engaged learning tour of alternatives. We spent a day learning about the history of steel in Sparrow’s Point in Baltimore County and spoke with folks working to build off shore wind and other alternative energy solutions. As students learned about the Green New Deal, we discussed the ways in which Maryland is moving towards completely renewable and sustainable industries by 2050. Maryland just passed the Clean Energy and Jobs Act and are working towards building a new economy based upon renewables.