Ky. Voices: UK should lead Kentucky's transition from coal

Samuel Beavin, a junior chemistry major at the University of Kentucky, is coordinator of the UK Beyond Coal Coalition.
Samuel Beavin, a junior chemistry major at the University of Kentucky, is coordinator of the UK Beyond Coal Coalition.

Like many people in this state, I was born a University of Kentucky basketball fan. My mom dressed me in blue and white before I could even walk. Because of that common bond, our basketball team can serve as a unifying force for people all across the commonwealth, and even for the diverse student population here at our university.

That great tradition, though, has become tied down to that of the coal industry, an industry that, instead of bringing citizens together, exploits the eastern half of our state through destructive mining processes that are creating fewer jobs and more environmental devastation every day.

Does it particularly matter that a new dorm for athletes will be named the Kentucky Coal Lodge? On the surface, perhaps not, but it is a symptom of the real issue: the relationship between this university and the industry that's hurt the people of this state in so many ways and that fosters reliance on a dirty energy source guaranteed to run out someday soon, not to mention it is slowly destroying our planet.

This is an issue that affects literally everyone — from those in Appalachia exposed to toxins released from coal-fired power plants to the young people whose future is put at risk by these unsustainable and destructive practices.

In a recent issue of Rolling Stone, Bill McKibben wrote that universities investing their endowment funds in fossil-fuel companies were virtually "guaranteeing that (the students of today) won't have much of a planet on which to make use of their degree." That destructive relationship has been taken even further here in Lexington.

The university is actively lending support and credibility to the coal industry, allowing the continued association with our athletics teams to distract from the real issues at hand and legitimizing the brazen exploitation of a wide swath of the state.

The world is rapidly changing, though, and Kentucky's reliance on coal can't continue forever. Like everywhere, we face enormous challenges that show no sign of abating, whether it's the struggling economy or the even grimmer outlook for our planet's environment. In light of those challenges, our generation can't rely on outdated ways of thinking about the economy or our energy future; the challenges are simply too great and too urgent to continue with business as usual.

But there are potential solutions, and Kentucky has the opportunity to play a central role in finding them. This state, for example, has greater solar potential than Germany, where clean-energy subsidies have made that country one of world's leading beneficiaries of solar energy. Even the university has already taken some hesitant steps toward investing in energy-efficiency initiatives, with new technologies such as geothermal that will hopefully reduce the need to burn fossil fuels like coal.

It will take a truly massive effort if we hope to realize the goal of a more sustainable society for ourselves and future generations, and all of these solutions will have to play an important role. Such decisive action will require bold leadership and creativity, and it certainly won't be possible to reach those goals without the full commitment of institutions like the University of Kentucky.

As the state's flagship institution, UK can play a tremendous role in shaping our world over the next several years simply by recognizing the reality of the threats we face and the urgency of addressing them.

There is no shortage of reasons to be worried about the future, but that can't be used as an excuse to ignore what is at stake for both our state and the whole planet over the next several years. We're capable of meeting this challenge, creating a new and better future. Let's show the administration that UK can and should be a part of that future.

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