Appalachia’s Lorax passes into legend

(Published in Earth Island Journal, Sept. 11, 2012)

Radford University journalism students are challenged by Larry Gibson during a 2008 mountaintop mining tour.

Larry Gibson’s parents never worried about finding him, when, as a boy, he wandered out into the forest. All they had to do was spot the hawk that followed him from the air. That’s how close Gibson was to the West Virginia mountains.

He pined for those mountains after his family joined the exodus from Appalachia, moving to where the jobs were, into Ohio and Pennsylvania, in the 1950s. But finally, in the 1990s, he was able to move back to a small cabin on the land owned by his family for generations.

By that time, the nearby town of Kayford was nearly gone. And the hills where he once roamed trembled under gigantic bulldozers and leviathan drag lines that were pushing back the woods, reaching down into the earth, and tearing out the coal.

Mountaintop removal mining tore something out of him, too, but he found a way to fight back. And in the process, Larry Gibson became something unexpected, a unique species of Appalachian Lorax, a small man in bib overalls who could elevate your vision with a few dozen words. Continue reading

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.

Welcome – Prof. Kovarik’s web

Klaatu barada nikto

These pages are for my students, who need a place to find links to their courses, and for anyone else who might be interested in my historical work or  links to experimental publishing projects.

By way of introduction, I’m posting this photo taken by Linda Burton at the Seattle museum of science fiction.  Gort was the robot from a movie called The Day the Earth Stood Still. Despite the uncanny resemblance, I’m the handsome one on your right. The museum is  extremely cool, and if you don’t see it next time you’re in Seattle, Gort will know where to find you.

Why do historians  like science fiction?  It has something to do with what history is and what it ought to be.

Continue reading

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

Earth Hour and Earth Day

Earth Hour pauses at the US borderThe Daily Climate, March 30, 2012 — Consider an hour without power, from 8:30 to 9:30 p.m. Saturday, local time. Organizers say as many as 1.8 billion will join in the symbolic environmental event worldwide. But if you live in the US, your neighbors may think you just blew a fuse.

Media history commentary

  • Radio and the Titanic —  Radford University, April 5, 2012 — If Guglielmo Marconi had not been so stubborn, perhaps 1,600 would not have perished when the Titanic sank in the icy Atlantic 100 years ago.
  • Hezekiah Niles: a patriotic newsmagazine editor in the 19th century –Baltimore Sun, Sept. 4, 2011 — Niles was a devoted patriot and an editor with vision. He managed to put aside his own partisanship in order to reach out in the spirit of compromise. He hoped that spirit might hold the nation together. Although his ideas were widely accepted in the North, he found attitudes in the South hardening during his years as editor.
  • Public Broadcasting’s Fight for Funding –Roanoke Times, Feb. 20, 2011 — … The Corporation for Public Broadcasting was created by President Lyndon Johnson in 1967, but the roots of educational and public broadcasting go back to the early days of radio, when communities, schools and churches started their own services, according to Radford University communications professor Bill Kovarik. “Federal licensing for commercial stations basically pushed all those educational stations off the air,” said Kovarik, who has written a media history textbook titled “Revolutions in Communication.”

The newsroom and the greatest country

Jeff Daniels in HBO’s Newsroom.

Among the hundreds of reviews of  HBO’s The Newsroom during the summer of 2012,  so far, none have questioned the basic accuracy of the screed heard round the world.

You can watch it at this link  or just read it here:

“And you — sorority girl — yeah — just in case you accidentally wander into a voting booth one day, there are some things you should know, and one of them is that there is absolutely no evidence to support the statement that we’re the greatest country in the world.”
“We’re seventh in literacy, 27th in math, 22nd in science, 49th in life expectancy, 178th in infant mortality, third in median household income, No. 4 in labor force, and No. 4 in exports. America leads the world in only three categories: Number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults who believe angels are real, and defense spending where we spend more than the next 26 countries combined.”

Acerbic. Bitter.  Certainly human. But …  journalistically accurate?  Let’s take a look. Continue reading

Information politics and oil wars

Were we wrong on “peak oil”?  Or just misinformed? 

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By Bill Kovarik

One of the more painful lessons of recent  history involves the way politics can slant  scientific information.

The latest entry in this category seems to be the curiously sudden abundance of fossil fuels.   Where we once had imminent shortages and a series of resource wars for Middle Eastern oil, we have natural gas from fracking, heavy oil from Venezuela and unconventional oil from Canada’s tar sands now hitting world markets.

Reactions from the world press include the following:

  • “We were wrong on peak oil,” said  George Monbiot of the Guardian in July, 2012.  “There’s enough to fry us all.”   Environmental strategies must change now because “the facts have changed,” he said. Continue reading