Excerpt from Big Coal by Jeff Goodell, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Big Coal

The Dirty Secret Behind America's Energy Future

by Jeff Goodell

Big Coal by Jeff Goodell X
Big Coal by Jeff Goodell
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2006, 352 pages
    Apr 2007, 352 pages

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Not so long ago, you could justify coal’s 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 that’s about the same as Kabul’s, 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, it’s 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 bake sale.

What’s 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 don’t 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 devil’s 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.

Copyright © 2006 by Jeff Goodell. Reprinted with permission by Houghton Mifflin Company.

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