Its easy to forget what a luxury this isuntil you visit a place like
China. Despite its booming economy in recent years, the insulating walls of
modern life have not yet been fully erected there. In restaurants, the entrées
are often alive in a cage in the dining room. Herbs and acupuncture needles
inspire more faith than pharmaceutical drugs. Toilets stink. In rural areas,
running water is a surprise, hot water a thrill. When you flip the switch on the
wall and the light goes on, you know exactly what it costsall you have to
do is take a deep breath and feel the burn of coal smoke in your lungs.
To a westerner, nothing is more uncivilized than the sulfury smell
of coal. You cant take a whiff without thinking of labor battles and
underground mine explosions, of chugging smokestacks and black lung.
But coal is everywhere in twenty-first-century China. Its piled up
on sidewalks, pressed into bricks and stacked near the back doors of
homes, stockpiled into small mountains in the middle of open fields, and
carted around behind bicycles and old wheezing locomotives. Plumes of coal
smoke rise from rusty stacks on every urban horizon. There is soot on every
windowsill and around the collar of every white shirt. Coal is whats fueling
Chinas economic boom, and nobody makes any pretense that it isnt. And
as it did in America one hundred years ago, the power of coal will lift China
into a better world. It will make the country richer, more civilized, and more
remote from the hard facts of life, just like us.
The cost of the rough journey China is undertaking is obvious.
More than six thousand workers a year are killed in Chinas coal mines. The
World Health Organization estimates that in East Asia, a region made up
predominantly of China and South Korea, 355,000 people a year die from the
effects of urban outdoor air pollution. The first time I visited Jiamusi, a city in
Chinas industrial north, it was so befouled by coal smoke that I could hardly
see across the street. All over China, limestone buildings are dissolving in
the acidic air. In Beijing, the ancient outdoor statuary at a 700-year-old Taoist
temple I visited was encased in Plexiglas to protect it. And its not just the
Chinese who are paying for their coal-fired prosperity. Pollution from Chinas
power plants blows across the Pacific and is inhaled by sunbathers on
Malibu beach. Toxic mercury from Chinese coal finds its way into polar bears
in the Arctic. Most seriously, the carbon dioxide released by Chinas mad
burning of coal is helping to destabilize the climate of the entire planet.
All this would be much easier to condemn if the West had not
done exactly the same thing during its headlong rush to become rich and
prosperous. In fact, were still doing it. Although America is a vastly richer
country with many more options available to us, our per capita consumption
of coal is three times higher than Chinas. You can argue that we manage it
betterour mines are safer, our power plants are cleanerbut mostly we
just hide it better. We hide it so well, in fact, that many Americans think that
coal went out with corsets and top hats. Most of us have no idea how central
coal is to our everyday lives or what our relationship with this black rock
really costs us.
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