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Coal industry’s ties run deep with Catholicism

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Michael Iafrate and Fr. Edwin Gariguez are waiting for the lights to turn on.

As activists for clean energy, they believe the time is now to forge a new path to sustainability. Though their work stems from different backgrounds and perspectives in the global struggle for renewable energy, their vision remains the same.

“We need to stop coal,” Gariguez said. “This is something that isn’t for the development of the people, but for the development of corporations. It puts the health of the people at risk and has negative impacts and effects for society.”

On Thursday, the Center For World Catholicism and Intercultural Technology hosted a panel, Catholicism and Coal, featuring Iafrate and Gariguez at the Lincoln Park Student Center. In the lofty room, they spoke of hope and desperation for a cleaner tomorrow.

Through a reception, independent presentations and a Q and A session with the audience, the two discussed the ins-and-outs of the coal industry and what it means to be a product of it.

“The future is largely up to us, we are making it, and we have to make it something else,” Iafrate said. “We must be brave and bold with the decisions and policies we make.”

A PhD student at the University of Toronto, Iafrate’s work has been largely dedicated to theology and its intersection with renewable energy, specifically for his home West Virginia – a state that was at one point largely dependent on coal jobs.

Now, as the United States has lost nearly 50,000 coal jobs in the past ve years alone, he has witnessed communities fall apart with the demise of the industry that is 100 years in the making. Loaded with history of Catholicism and its complicated links with the mining industry, Iafrate discussed the dangerous rami cations of coal.

“The Catholic Church wouldn’t exist without the coal industry,” he said to the crowd of students and community members who came out.

Deeply intertwined, many churches were funded by the coal industry, which made it difficult for them to stand up for the oppression that miners faced. He discussed the historical sites of conflict, and how churches should react — and act — to coal and the danger the labor havocked on its workers.

Gariguez brought stories from his time in the Philippines to campus.

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Michael Iafrate (left) and Fr. Edwin Gariguez (right) discuss the consequences and history of coal mining. (Photo by Darrah Perryman / The DePaulia)

“It is in this spirit that I stand before you today, as we are challenged to come together as church to protect the planet and to provide a sustainable future,” he said.

Coral reef damage, the buildup of toxins, chemical leaks in water and health problems, are among the ramifications he discussed.

“This is serious and alarming — this is destructive. Because of the power demand, there is a big opening for coal-powered plants and for coal mining to come in. Instead of preventing this and regulating, the Filipino government is inviting coal companies to mine and to put coal powered plants in the Philippines because they see something good for development,” Gariguez said.

Gariguez’s discussion of international mining concerns shed light on the different approaches to environmentalism for both the developing and developed worlds.

Ethan Thotes, a freshman in finance, came to the event not knowing what to expect and left more educated on a struggle unknown to most.

“It’s interesting hearing the developed and still developing views on how to deal with environmental issues and how the church has different roles in both nations,” Thotes said. “We realize that there are contradictions within the church on how to deal with environmentalism.”

A product of a conservative and liberal household, Thotes straddles the line of two sides. With both miners and extreme environmentalists in his family, he came to the event with an open mind on the issues at large.

“Miners think the environment is important, but that their job and the role they play is sacred. They view it as a prideful thing, it’s not so much as dangerous and looked down upon in society,” Thotes said.

For Kinga Rzezinowsku, a freshman studying secondary education, the talk empowered her to do more and take action in environmentalism.

“I am wondering on how I can help this cause. It was interesting to see different perspectives, and it will be interesting to see how this progresses and changes,” Rzezinowsku said. “I am concerned with the environment, and I am dreading how Trump will affect it.”

Both speakers addressed the concerns they have over President Donald Trump and the new administration’s stance on climate change after all evidence of climate change was removed from the White House’s website, following Trump’s inauguration.

Yet despite the election and the political climate around environmentalism, the speakers embraced the impending end to the coal industry, in pursuit of a new solution creeping onto tomorrow’s horizon.

“We are moving into the dark,” Iafrate said. ”We need to learn how — wherever we live — to feel our way in the dark together, toward something else. We cannot keep going the way that we are going.”

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Coal industry’s ties run deep with Catholicism