Mitch McConnell, Republican majority leader of the U.S. Senate, has his priorities in clear order.
First on the list is his political standing in his home constituency, the coal mining state of Kentucky.
Not far behind in importance is the satisfaction he might receive from one more opportunity — and there’ve been many — to impede, if not block outright, yet another important initiative of the president he has taken such satisfaction in frustrating.
At the very bottom of McConnell’s list, quite plainly, is any concern for the future habitability of this fragile planet, and whether the generations to follow him will inherit air fit to breathe, a climate suitable for growing food, or whether coastal cities will be swallowed by an ever-rising sea.
There are currently said to be 594 coal-powered generating plants in the U.S., with a total of 1,432 coal-burning generators.
The emissions from these plants are the country’s largest single source of environment-damaging greenhouse gas.
What has so aggrieved McConnell is President Barack Obama’s attempt, through Environmental Protection Agency regulations, to ultimately replace coal burning with solar, geothermal and wind-generated power.
As with any major change, there would be costs and inevitable complaints. But there would be indisputable benefits as well.
Forty years ago, on a commission from a national magazine, I spent a month in eastern Kentucky, in a coal mining hamlet named Lookout — inhabited in large part by retired and disabled miners.
I boarded that month in the humble but hospitable cottage of a former miner and his wife — Kermit and Vadney Ratliff.
The mine in which he’d labored, and ultimately been injured, was closed, and little other employment was to be had in Lookout. What remained were only the small family mines — dog holes they were sometimes called — worked mostly by fathers, sons and cousins of the same lineage.
Profits were lean. Women of the village formed a quilting cooperative and sold their handiwork to buyers in Detroit and elsewhere to make a bit of extra income.
Mining was a dangerous occupation. Occasionally an arm came out with the coal on the conveyor belt. Roof-falls in workings deep in the mountain’s heart claimed many lives.
I’m struck especially by one memory. In the same way that a morning, in some parts of the world — even in major cities — is announced by the crowing of roosters and braying of donkeys, the first sound of the day in coal mining country was the raspy sound of men coughing.
Pneumoconiosis, or black lung disease, was the region’s ubiquitous affliction — a major part of the human cost of underground mining.
By and large, the people of the coalfields — like most Appalachian folk — are warm-hearted and generous. What little they have to give they share gladly.
That’s one of the attractions of the region.
Another is its visual beauty. But in the time I spent there, that asset was coming under threat.
The practice of mountain-top mining had only just gained favor. With heavy equipment and blasting, the crowns of mountains were removed to get to the buried seams of coal in the layers below. The wreckage was simply bulldozed over the side, avalanching down to destroy houses and foul rivers and creeks.
Just as poverty and sickness were damaging a proud but struggling people, another irreplaceable asset — the dramatic beauty of the Appalachian landscape — was being relentlessly destroyed.
This is just one part of America whose salvation, like ours, Mitch McConnell is doing his level best to prevent.