BookBrowse Reviews Big Coal by Jeff Goodell

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Big Coal

The Dirty Secret Behind America's Energy Future

by Jeff Goodell

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

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Veteran journalist Jeff Goodell examines the danger behind Bush's recent assertion that coal is America's

From the book jacket: Despite a devastating, century-long legacy that has claimed millions of lives and ravaged the environment, coal has become hot again -- and will likely get hotter. In this penetrating analysis, Goodell debunks the faulty assumptions underlying coal's revival and shatters the myth of cheap coal energy. In a compelling blend of hard-hitting investigative reporting, history, and industry assessment, Goodell illuminates the stark economic imperatives America faces and the collusion of business and politics -- what is meant by "big coal" -- that have set us on the dangerous course toward reliance on this energy source.

Few of us realize that even today we burn a lump of coal every time we flip on a switch. Coal already supplies more than half the energy needed to power our iPods, laptops, lights -- anything we use that consumes electricity. Our desire to find a homegrown alternative to Mideast oil, the rising cost of oil and natural gas, and the fossil fuel-friendly mood in Washington will soon push our coal consumption through the roof. Because we have failed to develop alternative energy sources, coal has effectively become the default fuel for the twenty-first century.

Comment: Every time I come across a book such as Big Coal that tells me about yet another thing I should be worrying about I'm sorely tempted to act like the proverbial ostrich* and hide my head in the sand, hoping that the problem will go away; but the reality is that if people like us don't take an interest in these issues, to the point where we at least understand that there are issues, very little will ever change. How much easier it would be if the real-world was like the self-help books, and all we had to do was follow a three-day-plan or a 10-step-course to solve everything!

I'm no expert on the subject of fossil fuels but Big Coal does appear to cover all the bases. Goodell logically lays things out in three main sections that roughly track the life cycle of coal: "The Dig": The extraction and transportation of the raw product; "The Burn": The politics of coal burning plants and the health effects of air pollution; and lastly, "The Heat": Coal's role in climate change and how the industry intends to meet (or not) the challenges it faces.

Goodell decided to write a book about coal in 2001 when the New York Times Magazine sent him to West Virginia to write about the comeback of the coal industry. West Virginia, an important coal state which hadn't voted Republican in many years, was widely credited with giving Bush his margin of victory in 2000. He describes it as an eye-opening experience because, like many, he'd naively assumed that coal had "gone out with top hats and corsets" but instead he discovered that the richest, most powerful nation on earth was still burning black rocks to generate half its power, which led him to ask, "Why is it that we’ve figured out how to unravel DNA, clone sheep, and build a global communications network that allows me to send a photo of my dog to a friend in China in a few seconds, but we can't figure out a way to generate electricity that doesn’t wreck the planet?"

Overall, Goodell does an excellent job presenting his case without overloading the reader with scientific jargon or too much statistical information.

Also of interest
Coal: A Human History , Boiling Point; and for the perspective of what it is like to live in an ex-coal mining town today, Sister Mine, which you'll find in the hardcover section of this ezine.

*It is a fallacy that ostriches bury their heads in the sand - the male ostrich digs a large hole up to 3 feet deep for the eggs, then both birds take turns turning the eggs with their beaks a few times a day - which, from a distance, gives the appearance that they have their heads buried in the sand!

This review was originally published in August 2006, and has been updated for the April 2007 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.



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