U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., came to Baker, where I live, to talk about, as he put it, a “war on coal.” His visit was part of an energy tour leading up to an Energy Expo in Billings, which he organized on behalf of the fossil fuel industries.
As the days have passed, and I have thought about what was implicit in what he said, I find myself increasingly disturbed by how he and other politicians, like Ryan Zinke, Tim Fox, Greg Gianforte and Donald Trump are framing environmentalists.
Global warming is an established fact. Climate scientists are just short of unanimously agreeing that it is not only happening, but is human-caused, and will become catastrophic if business as usual continues. Environmentalists, like myself, see ourselves as working for the noblest of ends, trying to leave today’s children a healthy world to live in.
But, ignoring reality, politicians like Daines are rebranding our efforts as a “war on coal.”
The more I think about it, the more I’m offended. The future is at risk, mostly because of coal, and the politicians who represent me are fighting a “war” to save coal, as if coal were a victim and the reality of global warming could be ignored without consequence.
The “war on coal” isn’t a real war, obviously. It’s a metaphor, a strategy to draft recruits into an effort to discredit environmentalists. As such, the “war on coal” resembles other metaphorical wars we have been drafted into, like the “war on drugs,” the “war on cancer,” and the “war on terror.”
All of these “wars” turned out to be just as expensive as any real war, and none of them have ended in anything resembling a victory. Like real wars, they all caused much suffering and wasted many lives, mostly because they were false to reality. Global warming will win the “war on coal” because it is real, and the “war on coal” isn’t.
Metaphors help us interpret the world. By likening something to something else, we understand it better. Metaphors can enrich our thoughts, deepen our reflection, revealing what was concealed, but they can also lock our thoughts up in prisons, where they dictate what we think. By renaming the effort to stop global warming as a “war on coal,” Daines is trying to control our thoughts, concealing what climate scientists have long ago proven about global warming.
A “war on coal” is a tempting metaphor for Daines to push his agenda because it stirs up anger, nurtures resentment and conceals reality. But I doubt he has thought all the implications through. Daines and his friends seem to have forgotten that in war things get violent, and people are killed.
And so, here is my worry: If Daines, Zinke, Fox, Gianforte and Trump keep pushing their “war,” eventually their followers are going to take it literally, and they are going to do what people in war usual do—assault, maim, and kill.
Starting a “war” works well for Daines. He feeds people’s anger because he wants to be their hero, their champion–the guy who saves them from Obama, the EPA and environmentalists. Because “war” works so well for him, my question is: will he slam on the brakes before his followers get too angry, stopping them before they become violent?
Listening to Daines in Baker, I feel that he has lost control of his metaphor. There are no brakes on the car he’s driving. We could easily end up, as in all the other metaphorical wars we have been drafted into fighting, in a place none of us want to be. Maybe, instead of starting yet another “war,” Daines should give peace a chance.
Wade Sikorski lives on the family ranch in southeastern Montana. He has a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Massachusetts and is the author of several books, including Sacrificial Rituals.