By Katelyn Campbell '17
When I returned to campus this fall after a summer at home in West Virginia, I was surprised to be greeted by an all-too-familiar vista. A miniature version of a mountaintop removal site has taken the place of the once-hilly path between the Academic Quad and the Lulu Chow Wang Campus Center, marking the landscape with what can only be branded as an eyesore. At first, I joked morbidly about the resemblance between the two subjects with friends before moving on. Although my initial jokes have gone out of vogue from overuse, I still think about my friends and family back home whenever I walk past the scene.
I thought of that spot on campus a week into my junior year when I read the advertisement for a program put on by Wellesley’s Freedom Project. According to its website, the “Freedom” Project is “dedicated to the exploration of the idea of freedom in all of its manifestations, but especially in the tradition of Western classical liberalism.” A markedly conservative organization, the “Freedom” Project has in the past pitted intellectuals against each other in public fora, asking questions like, “Are liberals making it harder for African Americans to succeed?” and, most recently, “Are sweat shops defensible?”
Continues the website, “In its broadest sense, [the program] emphasizes the sanctity of individual rights, freedom of contract, constitutional democracy, and the rule of law. It includes, as well, an appreciation of the spirit of individualism and the struggle against arbitrary power, both in the form of political domination and the stultifying influence of ideological dogmas—cultural, political, or religious—and social conformity.”
This year, the “Freedom” Project has used its funds to pay for the visit of one Alex Epstein. Epstein is the president of the Center for Industrial Progress, a for- profit think tank with ties to the coal mining and fracking industries. Epstein is also the author of The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, about which he gave a talk on campus in mid-September.
According to promotional material for Epstein’s book, “You’ve heard that our addiction to fossil fuels is destroying our planet and our lives. Yet by every measure of human well-being, life has been getting better and better. This book explains why humanity’s use of fossil fuels is actually a healthy, moral choice.”
Epstein’s book goes on to claim that our environment is “better than it’s ever been,” and that, in order to achieve progress, sacrifices must be made in the name of the greater good.
While I am by no means an advocate for censorship resulting from differences of political opinion, I am most certainly a champion of data-driven arguments within the scope of academia (if not in public discourse, as one would hope). In this respect, Epstein’s “case” for fossil fuels fails the facts test, ignoring the hard science behind climate change, as well as a legacy of oppression in favor of blind, inconsiderate progress.
Shielded by privilege, Epstein fails to recognize the plight of generations of workers in extractive industry who have suffered at the hands of outside profiteers while toiling for a day’s pay. From his home in Orange County, California, Epstein is shaded from the harsh realities of life in the coalfields, where black lung runs rampant and environmental pollution has left places like McDowell County, West Virginia without potable water for upwards of fifty years.
Lest we forget, extractive industry is not just an American blight. Miners in China and South and Central America have been subjected to similar takeovers by extractive industry at equal, if not greater, costs. In developing rural areas of China, extractive industry is set on a path to replicate the systematic oppression experienced in my home in Appalachia. Meanwhile, cities like Shanghai are so choked with smog from coal burning power plants and industrial waste that residents can very literally barely breathe. While Epstein argues that our environment is “better than it’s ever been,” it is clear that the reality is otherwise.
In cases of extreme environmental strife, though, there is room for relief—if you can pay for it. Epstein asserts that progress must occur as a result of sacrifice, implying that the sacrifice is experienced by all but then eventually resolved for the benefit of the greater good. However, this is often not the case. In Appalachia, for example, those with enough money to travel leave in search of healthier living arrangements in less-polluted areas with higher rates of employment, whereas the poor are left to live with the legacy of careless industrial expansion. With access to few other options (if any), the remaining workers become steadily more reliant on extractive industry, decreasing their collective bargaining power and increasing the likelihood that any economic shift could result in massive layoffs. Epstein’s idea of the possibility of escape leaves no room for the systematically impoverished. By suggesting that progress involves leaving those unable to leave behind, Epstein invokes the genocidal undertones of the forced sterilization movement of the early twentieth century, which sought to rid the United States of its poor and mentally handicapped in the name of the “greater good.” Meanwhile, those made poor are left to struggle in resourceless food deserts with little hope for the future in rural areas, out of sight and out of mind, far from wealthy corporate executives who decide their fate.
While conservatism certainly has its place on Wellesley’s campus, I would prefer that organizations like the Freedom Project spend their money on bringing facts rather than sensationalized bigotry to the center stage. If there’s one thing I know about Wellesley students, it’s that we love a good argument, so if conservative viewpoints brought to campus engaged students with stronger data, they would likely merit deeper student engagement. To that end, the truthless dogma that Epstein brings to the table is contrary to the Freedom Project’s very mission—if we are to believe that their organization is based in the ideals of personal freedom and abhorrence of political dogma, how can their leadership allow such a presenter face time at the expense of the oppressed from whom his organization and pertinent industries profit?
From where I stand, so long as extractive industry profits from environmental irresponsibility and the labor of the oppressed, there is not, nor will there ever be, a moral case for fossil fuels. And until corporate extractive industry begins to fully consider the needs to the communities and habitats it inhabits, their un-facts have no place on Wellesley’s campus.
The “Freedom” Project likes to ask hard questions, but perhaps now is the time for those questions to reflect a greater sensitivity to their implications, lest they further alienate themselves from a larger audience that is already skeptical of their political leanings.
From September 2015 Issue