Former fifth-generation coal miner helps ISU kick off the 2018 Symposium on Sustainability


Nick Mullin says that if coal miners in rural Appalachia could leave their jobs, they would – however they need to provide for their families, and there isn’t better money in these working class areas. Mullin was a fifth generation miner, and is now an environmental activist and Monday night’s keynote speaker for the 2018 Sustainability Symposium.

Paige Anson

Sustainability was the word on campus last night as Iowa State University’s ninth Symposium on Sustainability kicked off with a poster and tabling reception, an award and a keynote lecture from a former fifth-generation Appalachian coal miner, Nick Mullins.

Rows of sustainability-themed posters constructed by various students, faculty and community members in the Memorial Union South Ballroom were available first for public access at 7 p.m., as were the lined rows of seats in the Great Hall for the 8 p.m. lecture.

Mullins’ lecture “The Thoughtful Coal Miner”, began with a warm welcome from the crowd, and some technical difficulties with the screen projector.

Although those technical difficulties rendered Mullins screenless until after the final applause of the evening from the audience, he instead painted his pictures of environmental crises with an emphasis on his experiences with the coal mining and environmental crisis in Appalachia.

“Each and every day, [people have] been burning through millions of barrels of oil, millions of tons of coal,” Mullins said, “[Because of this] we have a lot of problems we have to solve.”

Ocean acidification and over-salinization, rising sea-levels, runoff, and other pollution derived impacts are among a few of the problems of humans using such fossil fuels, Mullins said.

“It doesn’t matter the color of our skin, our religions…[These environmental impacts are] a human problem [and] a global problem,” Mullins said.

From his own experience working in the mines, Mullins went on to detail the focus of his lecture, on the dichotomy, or conflict, between Appalachia’s jobs and the environment.

“Ten years ago, I was working as an underground coal miner [in Appalachia]. I resisted it as long as I could, but you do what you have to do to take care of your family,” Mullins said.

Although he and others knew that working in the mines, especially one unprotected by The United Mine Workers, was dangerous for their health and the environment, Mullins described a community that had no other options.

A place where jobs opportunities are few and far in between, the coal mining business has been one that many in Appalachia need in order to survive with the basics, Mullins said.

For Mullins, the required overtime, exhausting work and environmental and personal degradation in compensation for payment could only go on for a few more years before he decided to quit mining.

“After a few years and come to Jesus moments, I quit my job. I realized [living] wasn’t just about a paycheck. It was about the water [we] drink and the air [we] breath,” Mullins said.

After quitting, Mullins went on to experience environmental advocacy from a new end of the spectrum, and received his bachelors in communications with additional focuses in Appalachian studies and sustainability and environmental studies at Berea College in 2016.

His research and experiences from these endeavors were done in effort for him to better understand Appalachia’s situation trapped in environmental and personal destruction while mining for a living, and how to get out of it, Mullins said.

Job creation in Appalachia, and less media and environmental advocacy accusation in exchange for a search of logic and understanding of miner’s situations are possible mediums to improve environmental and economic health in Appalachia, Mullins derived from these experiences, he said.

“[Instead of saying] here’s what you’re doing wrong, [say] here’s how we are going to help you,” Mullins said.

Communication, open and honest, on both sides is the only way to ignite economic and environmental progress, Mullins said.

Subsidies in areas that need it, such as infrastructure and public services, are also highly needed in helping Appalachia gain more job options outside of the mines.

“There is an intense need of public services [in Appalachia], in schools, in water systems, [etc]… they say we don’t have they money for it, but I believe we do,” Mullins said.

Understanding these needs are essential aspects environmentalists can help focus on, in order to give Appalachians job options outside of mining, which is something Appalachians want, Mullins said.

Audience members, Alex Martin and Elliot Rossow, who are graduate students involved in Agricultural Engineering at Iowa State, felt that Mullins’ point on fair communication was accurate and relevant in issues they see within local environmental conflicts between farmers and the community.

“It was a fantastic lecture, and fairly eye-opening… I wasn’t surprised at what I heard, but it was intriguing,” Rossow said.

Primarily these students felt that the public’s lack of understanding about their own high demand for services, and the available means for meeting those demands, were correlations between Mullins’ coal industry and Iowa’s farmers.

“We’ve seen a lot of that miscommunication in the farm industry,” Martin said.

Mullins is the author of the blog “The Thoughtful Coal Miner”, and has been featured in publications including “The Washington Post”, “The World” and “Audubon Magazine”.

His lecture was cosponsored by The Green Umbrella, National Affairs, the Office of Sustainability and the Committee on Lectures.

Announced at the lecture, by Director of Sustainability at ISU Merry Rankin, was the winner of the 2018 Live Green! Awards for Excellence in Sustainability, Dr. Joan Su, for her work developing sustainable initiatives on campus, including the development of the sustainable event management class at ISU.

Other events on the Symposium on Sustainability continue Tuesday with another Sustainability Poster and Tabling Reception and Sustainapalooza from 5-8 p.m. in The Memorial Union Great Hall, South Ballroom and Sun Room.

A discussion on the documentary, “The Age of Consequence” will conclude the Symposium on Sustainability Feb. 26, at 7 p.m. in the Memorial Union Great Hall.