Category Archives: Environmental history

It’s the same old oil industry

By Bill Kovarik
As a very young news reporter in Washington DC in 1979, I was invited to one of those  think tank “luncheons” where everyone chatted amiably about world oil reserves and the imminent collapse of the Persian Gulf.

Not surprisingly, all the speakers agreed that a shut-down of the Persian Gulf would be catastrophic and must be prevented at all costs. That is, all the speakers except one smiling Venezuelan named Alirio Parra, who was then oil minister.  The bottom line was: Don’t worry. Venezuela has more oil in the eastern Orinoco than all the Middle East. And, he strongly implied, your petroleum geologists should be more honest with you.

I remember the shouts of outrage from the assembled policy wonks, one of whom yelled that there was “a journalist here” in the same tone that a Victorian preacher might caution:  “ladies present.”

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Enduring legacy: Women and the Environment

By Bill Kovarik, for Radford Women’s Forum, March 9, 2010

Appreciation for the history of women, minorities, labor and social movements is long overdue, since these stories are just as close to the heart of the democratic experience, or perhaps closer, than many found in traditional American history textbooks.

Especially interesting is the leading role women played in the nation’s early environmental movement. This movement began at least a century and a half ago, peaked in the Progressive era of the 1890s, and then declined during the war years in the early- to mid-20th century. Continue reading

Appalachian issues

The Blue Ridge Mountains where we live are on the border of a region called “Appalachia.”   The area is rich in culture and natural history, but extraordinarily poor in terms of economic development and political leadership.

  • Appalachian Feudalism New York Times, April 14, 2010  — Why are [mine disasters] happening? Three factors stand out: Appalachian people are have been historically oppressed, with ugly stereotypes used to justify their mistreatment. The history of coal mining in Appalachia shows over a century of constant violence against those who have stood up for human rights, for labor unions and for other reforms… And the external costs of coal, in terms of human health or the natural environment, have never been reflected in what consumers pay to keep the lights on.
  • Second battle of Blair Mountain continues, Earth Island Journal, June 2, 2011 — The marchers who will take to the roads of West Virginia next week to try to stop the demolition of yet another mountain for the coal underneath will be following the same route that more than 10,000 well-armed miners took 90 years ago…
  • Stone’s Throw:  Earth Island Journal, Autumn, 2007 —  High in the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia, on a small island of green above a desert of rock and mud, a man in blue jean overalls wanders through an overgrown cemetery and struggles to contain his emotions. What happened to the graves down here?” the man asks. “There were three graves over here and one over here.” Continue reading

Environmental advocates at risk

Killings of environmentalists appear to be on the rise Associated Press, worldwide, June 20, 2012 — Global Witness’ figures are much higher that those that Bill Kovarik, a communications professor at Virginia’s Radford University, has been compiling since 1996. He focuses on slayings of environmental leaders and does not include deaths in protests that are counted in the Global Witness report. But Kovarik, too, has noticed a substantial jump: from eight in 2009 to 11 in 2010 and 28 last year.

“For many years intolerant regimes like Russia and China and military dictatorships tolerated environmental activists. That (environmental advocacy) was the one thing you could do safely, until (you) crossed into the political area,” Kovarik said. “Now, environmentalism has become a dangerous form of activism, and that is relatively new.” Both Kovarik and Global Witness believe even more killings have gone unreported, especially in relatively closed societies in countries such as Myanmar, Laos and China. Global Witness said there is an “alarming lack of systematic information on killing in many countries and no specialized monitoring at the international level.” See Global Witness report. Washington Post story.

Alternative energy history

In addition to writing serious history about alternative fuels, over the past several years I’ve been asked to comment on the current condition and future prospects of ethanol, biodiesel and other fuel alternatives.  Interviews have shown up in the Associated Press, Norfolk Pilot, National Public Radio and Roanoke Times.

  • Where are the Steve Wozniaks of the Energy Revolution? True Slant, May 30, 2010  — Why it is that the social construction of energy technology is so much more difficult than the social construction of, say, computing and the digital media revolution? Was IBM that much less of a challenge than Standard Oil? Where are the Steve Wozniaks of the energy revolution?”
  • Running on ‘E’ — Norfolk Virginian Pilot, Dec. 3, 2011 — “Ethanol isn’t new. Benjamin Franklin used it for his warming pan in the 18th century, said Bill Kovarik, a professor of communication at Radford University who has studied the topic. Henry Ford built the Model T with an “adjustable carburetor” to run on gas or ethanol, Kovarik said.
  • United Nations: Leaded gasoline to be eliminated — Associated Press, worldwide, Oct. 27, 2011 — Leaded gasoline became universal despite warnings from public health advocates and a scandal over the deaths in 1924 of six refinery workers in Newark, New Jersey, who were poisoned while manufacturing it and “were led away in straitjackets,” said Bill Kovarik, a journalist and communication Continue reading