Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Books About Coal

Three Revealing Books about Coal

Got your summer readings figured out yet? Well, let me just say that you will find the following three books fascinating.

1. Coal: A Human History by Barbara Freese
The main fuel of the industrial revolution, this lowly black rock has shaped the human experience and our world. This wonderfully written short book will familiarize you with the history of coal, from the “Great Stinking Fogs” of London, to coal mines of Pennsylvania, to Beijing. The author worked as an Assistant Attorney General of state of Minnesota, where she enforced her state’s air pollution laws and along the way became fascinated by coal and the larger story behind the smoke. I would start with this book.

2. Lost Mountain by Erik Reece
People say, “we have enough coal for the next 300 years!” We see the coal trains, or a pile of coal near a power plant, but the extraction of coal is out of our sight and therefore out of our mind. Journalist Erik Reece writes about his month-by-month witnessing of the complete destruction and removal of a single mountain in Kentucky. The threat of drilling for oil in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge in Alaska has periodically generated much news. But the devastations to the people and entire watersheds caused by “mountaintop removal” have not generated much national news. The excellent journalism that is the basis of this book won the Columbia University School of Journalism’s 2005 John B. Oaks Award for Distinguished Environmental Journalism. Very readable, with a foreword by Wendell Berry.

3. Missing Mountains, an edited volume by Wind Publications
I was recently in Kentucky and this book is a compilation of short writings by Kentuckians to reveal the destruction of Kentucky by the careless coal-mining companies. People of this book deal with the harsh reality of mountaintop removal everyday: wells going dry from mine blasts, damaged foundations, devastated watersheds, severe floods, air pollution, and other “acts of God” (as the state government officials tell the people).

These three books help us imagine and better understand what the electrical socket on the wall is really connected to.

Coal is “cheap” because lots of real human and ecological costs (revealed in these books) are ignored and not counted. Like Enron accounting. Reading these books has brought home to me, again, that coal-burning and energy wastefulness should force us to deal with a deep moral issue: how much longer will we take part in the coal story?

Not too long ago, child labor was common in this country, slavery was common. And both, like cheap coal, were very “economical” too. But, at some point, we decided they were morally wrong, and we did not want to do it anymore (at least not in this country). We have long ways to go to admit to ourselves that it is our wasteful ways that is creating the need for more and more electricity, for more and more troublesome coal mining and coal burning.

Is it possible to generate electricity without so much devastation? Yes, but we have to get a grip on our unlimited wants. Last week, I visited the three small river powered generators on the Cedar River, downtown Waverly. The Waverly Light and Power has operated these units since the early 1920s, and they still work just fine. The generator room was so silent, so impressive. And the whole operation was truly non-smoking! Many Iowa towns used to have river powered mills and later river powered electrical generators.

“Cheap” coal made it possible for many cities to abandon these renewable energy sources. But now once again, Cedar Falls, Waverly and many other communities are reconsidering renewable energy sources like wind energy. And, acknowledged or not, at the root of this shift is a moral consideration, a land ethic.

Kamyar Enshayan can be reached at 273-7575 or kamyar.enshayan@uni.edu


At 2:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

And what is the governor's position on a coal fired power plant in his jurisdiction?


Post a Comment

<< Home