dumped mercury \(a catalyst in making which the town sat. By the 1950s, not only were inordinate numbers of people slurring words and falling into shaking fits, but even the town’s cats went nuts. By the 1960s, babies were routinely born without arms or legs. All in all, more than 1,500 people died of mercury poisoning. Countless others were injured. The pols and execs, though, are keeping this one quiet, too. Story after story along these rather grim, rather depressing, lines should convince even the staunchest supporter of coal that there are serious problems to confront, and that the industry should at the very least be closely regulated. The level of cynicism and corruption required to ignore these problems and advocate the unregulated burning of this energy, which clogs the environment and food supply with heavy metals, and adds dramatically to the world’s carbon output \(thus spiking comprehend. It’s so astounding in its shamelessness, so bold in its disregard for human safety and quality of life, that even a seasoned politician such as Christine Todd Whitman, former head of the EPA, says she was snowed by it. In another one of the book’s narrative high points \(one that Goodell acknowledges comes from Ron Suskind’s The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House, and the Education of Paul Goodell retells the story of how Whitman came into office hoping to show the world that the United States took global warming seriously. With a 2001 promise from Bush \(one made during his campaign and printed in his on carbon dioxide emissions, Whitman went off to Trieste for a G-8 summit on global warming and promoted this surprisingly enlightened U.S. position. She was later quoted as saying that “a number of high level executives from coal, utility, and railroad companies,” as well as several Republican senators, pounced on the administration to avoid what former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour was publicly calling Whitman’s “ecoextremism.” When she returned from Trieste, Whitman discovered that Bush had reneged on everything he’d said to her about global warming. He told her, point blank, there was no point in To a westerner, nothing is more uncivilized than the sulfry smell of coal. You can’t 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. It’s 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 what’s fueling China’s economic boom, and nobody makes any pretense that it isn’t. 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 China’s 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 pollution. The first time I visited Jiamusi, a city in China’s 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 it’s not just the Chinese who are paying for their coal-fired prosperity. Pollution from China’s 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 China’s 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, we’re 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 China’s. You can argue that we manage it better our mines are safer, our power plants are cleaner but 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. In truth, the United States is more dependent on coal today than ever before. The average American consumes about twenty pounds of it a day. We don’t use it to warm our hearths anymore, but we burn it by wire whenever we flip on the light switch or charge up our laptops. More than one hundred years after Thomas Edison connected the first light bulb to a coal-fired generator, coal remains the bedrock of the electric power industry in America. About half the electricity we consume comes from coal we burn more than a billion tons of it a year, usually in big, aging power plants that churn out amazing quantities of power, profit, and pollution. In fact, electric power generation is one of the largest and most capital-intensive industries in the country, with revenues of more than $260 billion in 2004. And the rise of the Internet a global network of electrons has only increased the industry’s power and influence. We may not like to admit it, but our shiny white iPod economy is propped up by dirty black rocks. From The Big Coal by Jeff Goodell 26 THE TEXAS OBSERVER JUNE 30, 2006
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