Burning the Future

AS I WRITE from my home in Missoula, Montana, the gentle low-lying Mounts Sentinel and Jumbo shine bright with the sun to the east. To the southwest, the Bitterroot Mountains cut a rugged, snow-covered swath on the horizon. It’s difficult to imagine what my home would be like if these ranges were altered or demolished. But that is exactly what is happening in the Appalachians, where whole mountains are literally being moved.

Over half of America’s electricity is produced in coal-fired plants, much of which comes from coal-rich West Virginia. David Novack’s powerful documentary Burning the Future: Coal in America gives voice to the people of West Virginia as they fight against the nation’s vast hunger for cheap energy and the practice of mountaintop removal (MTR) that is changing the landscape of their own backyards and with it their very identities.

The devastating environmental effects of MTR are severe enough to leave what one expert in the film calls “the second most diverse forest in the world” a barren wasteland. Novack uses simple camera techniques such as tilts and pans to highlight this destruction in vivid detail. In one shot, he focuses the lens on thriving plant life only to slightly tilt the camera upward to reveal giant machines scraping rock and debris away from a desolate mountainside that was once, no doubt, as remarkable as the foliage below. His sweeping aerial shots of intact areas are stunning visual reminders of how pristine these eastern forests truly are, and you feel a sharp sting when the camera inevitably shifts, settling on a mountain in the process of being mined. The stark juxtaposition of these shots — the shock of the assault — creates some of the most powerful images in the film.

Burning the Future rides the emotions of West Virginians affected by the business of coal. Maria Gunnoe, a miner’s daughter, self-proclaimed hillbilly, and MTR activist, becomes the emotional backbone. Her testimonials on drinking water tainted by poisonous sediment and extensive flood damage due to lack of vegetation highlight the human costs (both physical and emotional) of this kind of degradation. Maria has taken on the very industry that has shaped her life and the lives of so many others in her community. Her genuine love and respect for her Appalachian home is embodied by Novack’s keen eye.

The presence of coal in the Appalachians was formed by, as one miner says it, “the hand of God in Noah’s day, just after the Great Flood.” West Virginia’s own governor states, “The good Lord gave us the resources to help ourselves.” Maria argues that the Lord also formed each mountain, tree, and stream and that nature needs to be protected — a position made difficult not only by the corporations practicing MTR, but by consumers’ insatiable desire for cheap energy. Her fight eventually moves from the hills of Appalachia to the streets of New York. And as she stands in the middle of Times Square yelling, “Turn off the lights!” it’s tough not to think we, as consumers, might also have dirty hands.