By Julian Martin

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Yes, you heard me right. West Virginia is overpopulated.

Overpopulation exists when there are not enough jobs for the number of people who need them - or at least not enough jobs without destroying the very environment the people live in.

But even destroying the environment doesn't seem to bring more jobs, as is plainly demonstrated in coal industry employment statistics. There were more than 100,000 coal miners in West Virginia in 1950 and about 17,000 in 2010. And this decrease in jobs was during near-record coal production and its requisite destruction of the mountains, trees, water, wildlife, people and culture.

Around the year 1900, people were brought into West Virginia from the south and from Europe to mine coal. They stayed and reproduced, and the jobs declined as the population increased. With the cooperation of the union, the mines were mechanized and then mechanized again, accounting for a huge job loss. The population that was in West Virginia in 1880, when the horrendous scale of environmental destruction started, is about all this state can handle without eating the mountains like tent caterpillars on a wild cherry tree.

My people came here long before the coal companies recruited immigrants off the boats in New York and ex-slaves from the South to work the terribly dangerous mines. On my mother's side of our family, only three of us are left in West Virginia. In response to overpopulation, which combined with technology resulted in high unemployment, my mother's siblings fled to Ohio and Florida and mine to the Carolinas. I tried California but only lasted three years and had to come back, job or no job.

However, the overpopulation isn't confined to West Virginia. You can't escape it by leaving; it is worldwide, and the environment is being torn to pieces worldwide to feed, clothe, shelter and pamper some of this swarm of people. The rainforests of South America are being destroyed, as are the Appalachians; waters of the world are being polluted; 5,000-year-old redwoods have been cut down; highways are "opening up" and "developing" pristine areas with strip malls, filling stations and fast-food joints.

Our wasted West Virginia environment results in the sorry spectacle of people destroying limestone mountains to treat trout streams ruined by acid mine drainage from coal mines that are destroying other mountains. Fishermen following stock trucks in order to catch trout almost before they hit the water are another sorry result of an abused environment. And there is the shame of profiteers wanting to drill 36 gas wells in Chief Logan State Park and two more in Kanawha State Forest along with the threat of mountaintop removal right across the creek.

Humans are devouring the food and habitat of other species. We cannot eat the whole world and live on this planet alone in a junkyard environment. We do need the other living things. We need the salamanders. The salamander is the largest animal biomass in our forests. It is at the bottom of the food chain. Most every other animal species in the forest depends on the salamander being there in large numbers at the base of the pyramid. Salamanders don't survive on a forest floor scrambled by bulldozers. Little creatures in streams buried by mountaintop-removal valley fills are vital to the life forms farther down the stream. Everything is indeed connected, including us.

We, too, are part of nature. We have a right to be here and to flourish. But humans have become an infestation on the body of the earth. The worst sores are the huge cities. As you leave the cities, the inflammation decreases and the countryside appears healthier. There is less concrete and asphalt, more green space, less noise, the air is cleaner, the water looks better, and there are fewer people. But to feed the infection in the cities, rural areas are losing their mountaintops, their streams and their forests. The effects of the infection are spreading.

It is madness.

Martin, of Charleston, is a member of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy.


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