Politics of Nature: Toward a History of Repair

This post is part of a series on Politics of Nature, in which contributors explore the diverse and complex relationships of humans and their nonhuman environments, as they are framed by politics, broadly construed. The series showcases the ways in which thinking about, writing about, and acting within nature has affected these relationships.

“Promiňte, slečno!” I jerked awake to meet the eyes of the woman sitting across from me in the train compartment who had just nearly shouted “Excuse me, miss!” at me. She gestured toward the air conditioner and asked me to turn it on. “Bohužel to nefunguje,” I told her. Unfortunately it doesn’t work. We were bumping through the Moravian countryside from Brno to Ostrava in the Czech Republic at the end of August, both sweating through our clothes. I had spent the previous six weeks in Brno taking a language class and had decided to pay a visit to the country’s industrial capital after my course finished.

Ostrava intrigued me for a number of reasons. In 2017, the European Union designated the city and its environs one of Europe’s “coal regions in transition.” In other words, it is hemorrhaging coal jobs at one of the highest rates on the continent. It is known for being an industrial city. Many of the tram stops are named after mines or steel works. When I told people in Prague and Brno that I was going to spend some time in Ostrava, they would inevitably ask me why and suggest I check out one of the Bohemian spa towns instead. But, for me, a “coal region in transition” is a familiar type of place. I grew up in Kentucky, which is now characterized more by its affection for coal than by coal’s significance to the economy. In Appalachia, without money from the likes of the EU, transition looks more like decline.

When I arrived at the main train station, I discovered it was one of the hottest days of the year. On the train, at least I could crack the window and feel the moving air against my face. After disembarking, I lugged my backpack through the station searching for a map and someone to ask which tram line would get me to the town center. The air felt stagnant and heavy and my hair stuck to the back of my neck, another familiar feeling from humid Kentucky summers.

My main purpose in coming to Ostrava was to visit a former coal mine that had been converted into a tourist destination, Landek Park. From a website it looked like a veritable resort, with an elaborate restaurant, biking and running paths, tennis courts, and nature trails. When I arrived the next morning, I saw there was also a kitschy train for children that wound around the old mining buildings. Apart from the dingy brick warehouse and preserved mine shaft underneath, you wouldn’t know this area had been such a hotbed of industry or pollution. Landek seemed on the surface to have been restored to, if not a wild state, at least a pleasant one. I did not go to Ostrava expecting to be moved by natural beauty, but as I roamed through the new growth woods after my tour of the mine I felt a wave of gratitude wash over me for the possibility of repair.

Mine shaft turned gift shop. Landek Park, Ostrava, Czech Republic, 2019. Photo by author.
[Image description: A slightly dilapidated brick building with a large steel mine shaft emerging from the roof. A black sign with the text 1993/25/2018 hangs on the far right side of the building. People sit outside and a small train track swerves around the front. A forest stands in the background.]

Nearly a year after wandering by myself through those dappled Silesian woods, I read Holly Buck’s After Geoengineering: Climate Tragedy, Repair, and Restoration. It was the spring of 2020 and the world had become unrecognizable. Traveling to other countries had become unthinkable, and even going to a friend’s house for dinner posed a risk to personal and public health. It was in the context of the urgent, demoralizing, deadly Covid-19 pandemic that I read Buck’s book and began to feel optimism. After Geoengineering is part journalism, part speculative fiction, and part moral treatise. In it Buck urges us to consider the possibilities of geoengineering approaches to the climate crisis and not to write it off out of hand. I was taken aback—my attitude, and that of pretty much every right-thinking person I knew, was that geoengineering is a ruse. It recreates the sort of Promethean arrogance that got us into this mess. We can’t innovate our way out of climate change. There is no simple fix, no quick trick, nothing easy—it is our reckoning.

Buck offered me a different way to think about geoengineering. Importantly, it is an umbrella term under which a multitude of different interventions can be found. One is carbon capture and sequestration—basically, sucking carbon dioxide back out of the atmosphere and burying it. I was surprised to learn that this is already built into IPCC models for mitigating climate change. Geoengineering can also included more dramatic interventions such as “stratospheric aerosol injection,” which would involve injecting particles into the atmosphere to reduce how much sunlight can come in, in essence building a shield around the earth. In theory, this would buy us time to get our carbon emissions under control before the earth becomes uninhabitable. It is a haunting possibility, and one that still makes me deeply uneasy, but she frames it within an ethics of repair. It is not only possible, but imperative, that we clean up the mess we’ve made.

Kentucky’s “coal regions in transition” are also struggling with the project of repair. Beginning in the 1970s, strip mining became the dominant form of mining in the region. Its most extreme variant, mountaintop removal, spread in the 1980s and 1990s. Mountaintop removal is exactly what it sounds like. Technicians use explosives to blast off the tops of mountains to skim off the coal underneath. It ecologically catastrophic in every sense: the bald mining sites are prone to flash floods and landslides which leach toxins into drinking water. Strip mining offers up more fossil fuels to burn while destroying carbon sinks. But there is a recent spot of hope for repair. For many years, the ecological restoration of strip mines was a bit of a joke. The Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement would scatter grass seed on the leveled mountain as if it were a golf course and call it a day. Recently, however, at the urging of Appalachian forestry experts and residents, they have begun planting trees instead. It is a slow process and will not undo the violent excavation of coal, but it is a step in the right direction. It is a means of repair.

There are two levels of repair that collide in “coal regions in transitions in transition” around the world. The first, the kind I saw in Ostrava and the kind that I hope will continue in Kentucky, is the easier of the two, which is not to say it is easy. This is ecological restoration: cleaning up rivers, planting new trees, letting the pollutants settle out of the air. Since the early environmental movements in the 1960s and 1970s, we have generated many examples of this kind of repair. The other kind of repair will be deeper and more painful. It is to pause and reverse the spewing of carbon into the air. As historians, I hope we can explore the idea of repair and find examples of it in the past. What changed? How did people decide, collectively, that enough was enough? And is it truly an act of repair if for every coal-fired power plant that closes, another opens up elsewhere? I hope we can begin to build a usable history of repair.

*Cover image: Woods near Landek Park, Ostrava, Czech Republic, 2019. Photo by author.

[*Cover image description: A collection of sparsely scattered trees with sunlight streaming between them and a blue sky, with a more densely populated forest in the background.]