BY JEREMY DACRUZ
Just over 10 miles south of Asheville, within sight of my mother’s home, a large coal plant sits on the picturesque banks of Lake Julian. Duke Energy built this plant in 1964, a daily fixture of life in South Asheville, and operates it to this day. Its plumes of opaque white steam serve as a reminder that Western North Carolina is not the Edenic utopia it appears to be.
The history of coal production in the United States is complex. Coal was, and in some cases still is, the livelihood of many people, especially those in Appalachia and certain regions of Pennsylvania, because it provides a cheap source of energy. However, this all comes at a cost, and the cost is great. Coal has led to great loss of life through mining accidents, documented environmental degradation and something akin to perpetual indentured servitude in coal towns.
I recently visited the Anthracite Heritage Museum in Scranton, Pa. There I saw how “big coal” used recent European immigrants as fiscal fodder with little regard for the safety of the workers or the health of the environment. Duke Energy showed me that this kind of corporate behavior is not limited to the Gilded Age.
Duke Energy has a large presence in much of the Southeast and generates power using nuclear, oil, hydro and coal plants. Duke Energy owns and operates 16 coal plants in the Southeast, including the one on Lake Julian. The usage of coal for the production of energy is controversial for more than just the greenhouse gases that coal plants emit. When coal is acquired using mountaintop removal, mining causes widespread erosion, destroys local ecosystems and endangers public health. Some of the coal Duke Energy uses to fire its plants has been acquired through mountaintop removal mining.
Duke Energy has caused harm to surrounding communities through negligence as well. In 2014, Duke Energy spilled 50,000 to 82,000 tons of coal ash in the Dan River near Eden, N.C. This spill was the third-largest coal ash spill in U.S. history. The environmental damage was widespread, and Duke Energy was investigated. After a year of legal proceedings, Duke Energy was fined over $100 million. This is arguably a small fine for a company the size of Duke Energy.
Duke Energy, much like the Koch brothers, is very politically active. From 2008-10 Duke Energy spent more money lobbying politicians, including North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, than it paid in income taxes.
Before the investigation was handed over to federal authorities, McCrory’s administration was in charge of the investigation of the coal ash spill in the Dan River.
The situation with Duke Energy may seem bleak at times, but there have been successes. The first example is the proposed electrical power station to be built within 300 feet of Isaac Dickson Elementary School in Asheville. This power station has been widely opposed by parents who fear for the safety of their young children. Their fears are not unfounded; as recently as May 2015, an electrical substation run by Duke Energy exploded and caught fire. After months of work, a grassroots effort by parents and concerned citizens has persuaded Duke Energy into reconsidering the site of this substation and delaying construction until 2017.
The second major success is Duke Energy’s recent decision to cancel its plans for the Foothills Transmission Line and Substation. The controversial transmission line would have cut through the mountains in Western North Carolina and Upstate South Carolina and caused extensive damage to the surrounding natural ecosystem, tourism economy and home values. This crisis has been averted due to the vigilance of Western North Carolina residents.
The abuses of Duke Energy, and many large corporations like it, ought not surprise us. Duke Energy is a helpful archetype to understand a deeper ideological issue that plagues our society. I’m going to refer to this as The Priority of Profit. I believe that The Priority of Profit is the root of much systemic evil in our society.
The Priority of Profit is valuing profit above all else. Money is merely a means to the acquisition of goods and services. Profit is just a surplus of money. Every system of values is oriented toward some “good,” and growth is the goal of The Priority of Profit. This value system undergirds our capitalist society. It says, “I’ll help my fellow man, as long as it is profitable,” and “I’ll protect the environment, as long as it is profitable.” The problem with this is that capital and profit have no intrinsic value. This is because capital is a tool that was implemented so that goods and services could be traded at a standardized value. Capital and, by consequence, profit are merely placeholders. Therefore, they cannot be that toward which society is oriented.
What are these comprehensive goods that society is oriented toward? This is obviously a complicated question, but they are goods that we desire in and of themselves. Let’s take a worker at the Duke Energy coal plant. She or he probably goes to work to make money to spend on providing for their family, going on vacation, visiting an art gallery or on any number of things the worker values. The workers probably have the best of intentions, a simple desire to acquire some capital to put toward the goods that they value. We can see then that capital is already lower in value than the many things that one spends it on. Even if they don’t immediately spend their money but instead put it in savings or stuff it under their mattress, they are still serving a higher good. Savings serve the higher good of security or a future purchase. A large bank account number serves the higher goods of power and prestige.
The goods we each value are varied and controversial, but I still think two points can be made by meditating on goods. First, profit is not a good itself and therefore cannot be that which an economy is oriented around. Profit as the highest good will eventually swallow or snuff out other goods. When this happens, there is no point to having capital or making profit because one has no goods toward which to put capital to use. Second, there are certain goods that are necessary for other lower goods to be realized and which almost everyone values. These are human beings, the planet and the aesthetic goods. These three may seem to come into conflict but are actually in perfect harmony.
For our purpose, I will assume that the reader believes that human beings are of value. I will also assume that everyone reading this is a human being, therefore it is in your best interest to believe in the value of human beings. When one values human beings, the value of the planet is easily demonstrable because human beings live here. If we mismanage our natural resources and people begin to suffer, as is the case with global warming, the destruction of croplands by erosion due to mountaintop removal coal mining, and any other imbalances that environmental degradation causes to our delicate ecosystem, we are harming human beings. Therefore, if you believe in the value of human beings, you are also asserting the value of the health of the natural environment.
Aesthetic goods are those which we enjoy because they are beautiful, lovely or moving. A mountain vista, a beautiful poem or majestic wildlife are all things we enjoy for aesthetic reasons. I will not deny that cities have their own aesthetic beauty, but a bank or apartment complex has never taken my breath away. A coal plant, like the one across the street from my mother’s house, has never brought me to tears, but the view from atop Black Balsam Knob has. We must steward and protect natural beauty so it can be shared and enjoyed for future generations. I want waterfalls and wetlands, not shopping malls and coal plants.
In 1964, when the Lake Julian coal plant first started producing power, U.S. Rep. Roy Taylor described it as a powerful means “to conquer want and drudgery.” This comment struck me. I felt that it perfectly represented the value system that I have been summarizing. A value system that prioritizes growth, often termed industrial progress, above all else. But what good is growth or riches if you destroy the “goods” on which you would spend your riches? If the world becomes a wasteland of coal plants, polluted lakes and melted ice caps, what good is money?
The only way to protect the goods toward which society is oriented is to prioritize them above profit. This is something that Duke Energy has not done. My challenge to you is one that speaks a language that Duke Energy will understand: divestment. Rid yourself of stocks, bonds and other investments in Duke Energy. This is a form of nonviolent coercion that hits Duke Energy where it hurts — in their coffers.
Jeremy DaCruz is recent graduate of the University of Central Florida who recently moved from Asheville to Nicaragua. He will be serving as a Jesuit volunteer there for the next two years.