Not so long ago, you could justify coals dark side with a single
word: jobs. In the 1920s, when more than 700,000 workers worked in the
mines, it was plausible to argue that miners were the backbone of the
economy. Today there are more florists in America than there are coal
miners. And if coal mining were the sure-fire ticket to wealth and prosperity
that many in the industry claim, West Virginians would be dancing on gold-
paved streets. Over the past 150 years or so, more than 13 billion tons of
coal have been carted out of the Mountain State. What do West Virginians
have to show for it? The lowest median household income in the nation, a
literacy rate in the southern coalfields thats about the same as Kabuls, and
a generation of young people who are abandoning their home state to seek
their fortunes elsewhere.
The argument that cheap power is vital to keeping American
manufacturers competitive also is suspect. At a time when U.S. auto
manufacturers spend more money on health care for their workers than on
steel for their cars, its increasingly hard to make the case that cheap
electricity is a major factor in keeping jobs from being exported to Asia. By
contrast, a full-blown push for clean energy could unleash a jobs bonanza
that would make what happened in Silicon Valley in the 1990s look like a
Whats most remarkable about the coal boom is that, unlike other
recent booms, which were driven by an overwhelming exuberance, this one is
driven by overpowering fear: fear that the world is running out of energy, fear
that America is losing its edge, fear of relinquishing the industrial age belief
that we can drill and mine our way to peace and prosperity, and, most of all,
fear that if we dont burn more coal, we will put not only the economic health
of the nation at risk but civilization itself. Have you ever been in a blackout?
one coal executive asked me while I was researching this book. Do you
remember how dark the whole world gets? Do you remember how scary it is?
Growing up in California, I had a firsthand look at the devils bargain of
progress. In the space of a few decades, my hometown of Silicon Valley
went from a sleepy oasis of fruit trees to the epicenter of the digital world.
The lovely apricot orchards in my neighborhood were bulldozed and replaced
by tract housing. Ferraris appeared at stoplights like exotic birds. I saw some
friends and family members catch the wave and get rich, while others who
had less talent for life in the new world fell farther and farther behind. I loved
my computer, and I loved the freedom and prosperity that came with it, but I
could never rid myself of the sense that the wonders of the digital world had
come at a high cost.
When I began research on this book, I felt an immediate and
unexpected connection with many people who had grown up in Appalachian
coal towns. Many of them had fled the world they grew up in (as I had) and
looked back on it with a particular kind of sorrow that was very familiar to me.
This note from Jennifer Stock, a thirty-five-year-old West Virginia native who
now lives in Seattle, is typical:
I grew up in Logan, West Virginia. When I was a teenager, I would go up on
Blair Mountain to party. There was a tall fire lookout tower on the top that
was great fun to climb. You could see so many ridges from it; the hills just
went on and on. Last time I tried to go back there, a few years ago, there
were all sorts of fences in the way. The coal companies are as ruthless to
the environment now as they used to be toward their employees. Strip
mining and mountain top removal are turning the area into a landscape from
hell, and to add insult to injury, the profits reaped from these efforts still
completely elude the inhabitants of the land. And then these people are
blamed for their ignorance and poverty because it is easier for their fellow
citizens to think that the ugliness is due to individual moral failing (lazy
rednecks) than [to] the economic system in which we all participate, by
which we are all culpable.
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