Burning the future

I came home tonight to powwow with the parentals about recent current events and enjoy a meal I didn’t have to prepare myself. We ended up watching a documentary called Burning the Future: Coal In America. My dad had recorded it for me because he knows I like to shoot the shit about industrial excess and the energy apocalypse. I had already read a news story here or there about mountain top mining, so I agreed to keep eye on the program while attending to other things. As it turns out, those other things did not get attended to. The program was absolutely riveting.

The documentary studies the effects on the relatively new practice of mountain top mining on communities in West Virginia. It’s not a one-sided treehugger lovefest. But it’s not very hard to give the impression of impartiality–reality has a very anti-coal bias. If you did nothing more than show silent footage of before and after scenes of West Virginia 50 years ago and West Virginia now, that alone would play like a requiem of staggering loss.

The ironic upshot of watching this is that traditional mining methods end up looking like a non-invasive paragons of sustainable living–at least comparatively speaking. The truth is that mining was always ecologically and socially damaging. But now through the miracle of technology, coal mining has gone from merely damaging to utterly devastating. They invented bigger and better ways to extract more coal faster, and that bigger and better way is to bulldoze the whole mountain from the top down. What’s left at the site and in surrounding valleys is a humongous pile of rubble, burying all life that was there before.

Like all good documentaries though, the focus is on the stories of the people immediately affected. I thought the most moving scene was an interview with a local who poured a glass of tap water that was a brown-black viscous mess. He lives right on a stream, but is forced to drink and use this toxic water because he cannot afford to buy it imported. The ground water of the whole region is polluted by coal slurry runoff disposed of in nearby abandoned mines. The water analysis tests results said not only is the water unfit for drinking, it’s not safe to be touched. This man who has been drinking it for years and continues to do so has come to terms with the fact that he expects to die because of it, and is resigned to making arrangements for that occasion.

All I can think is that the people should sue the shit out of these coal companies. But when you think about it, everyone can claim damages, not just the people drinking toxic cocktails to their deaths. It’s not killing the rest of us — yet (see: global warming) — but there is another cost that is not being captured, and every human being has a stake. I can see it now, a class action lawsuit with 6.7 billion defendants worldwide. And hey, if we split it even, every one of us will a least get a buck.

Of course the international community cannot be moved to care about these complicated problems either. One of the heartwarming parts of the movie was the segment that followed these ordinary people taking time out of their ordinary responsibilities to organize. Community cohesion and grassroots activism in its finest incarnation. They were invited to present their case at the UN sustainable development committee. The feeling I get from the few scenes of how they were received brings to mind the phrase collateral damage. That their community and others will be violently smudged off the map through fatal poisoning and property flooding is considered a necessary and even trivial fact of providing coal-based electricity to the people lucky enough not to live next to the byproducts.

Another telling and memorable thing is that one of the coal propaganda videos said, triumphantly, “Clean coal can provide us with another 250 years of prosperity!” This wasn’t the point of the scene, but I just thought it so remarkable that the Appalachian mountains are being leveled, and the payoff that we’re supposed to be optimistic about is only 250 more years! That seems small to me, considering that human civilization has been going on for thousands of years. If you’re going to pull a nice round divisible-by-ten figure out of your ass like that, at least give us another 2500? Maybe they forgot a zero.

The proposition that 250 more years of electricity (give or take) is a tidy trade for converting several eastern states quite literally into total barren wastelands is deeply offensive to me. The coal industry likes to say, “well have you got a better idea?” They have a point. Renewable energy cannot replace the 50% of electricity that coal currently provides–it is physically impossible to scale that way, given the technology as it stands today. But there is a better idea; it’s just not very popular. It comes down to my two B’s: stop buying and stop breeding. Some people get very offended when I say these things. Good, be offended–those uncomfy feelings will help prepare you for the real uncomfortable work of moving towards sustainable living. In short, get used to disappointment!

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2 comments so far

  1. Ned Raggett on

    Now that last paragraph is a manifesto. And a damn great one! (It may be weird to call it inspirational given the message but I think there is a certain charge in confronting what looks to increasingly be the greatest likelihood — I’m just glad I never fully bought into that life and lifestyle.)

  2. nariposa on

    The manifesto comes with a bumpersticker: Open your minds and close your legs!


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