Monday, November 26, 2007

Big Coal -- and us



Georgia Power’s Plant Scherer, near Macon, is the largest single point source of carbon dioxide emissions in the United States. Photo by Jeff Goodell. Natural History Magazine.

Do you suspect you ought to know more about how the United States contributes to the planet overheating? Reporter Jeff Goodell offers a heaping serving of understandable, if not palatable, explanation in Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America's Energy Future.

The author is a magazine feature writer and it shows. In the first sections of the book he puts a human face on the people who dig coal and who live with mining's byproducts, the people who transport the black rock, and the industry that profits from coal extraction and burning.

But this book is about more than explicating the problem -- and yes, our addiction to the energy provided by coal is a big problem. Goodell wrestles with a fundamental question: can a global capitalist society decide that the common good must prevail over the very engines of its wealth: individual greed and short-term profits?

On one level, he's confident it can be done. He proclaims:

We don't need to destroy our world, just reinvent it.

He finds hope for reinvention in what to U.S. sensibilities is an unlikely place -- among polluted China's rural developers. In that society, where living standards are on the rise despite labor and ecological horrors, he finds a "can do" spirit which encourages hope. (This tracks with the polling reported here.) And he's a hopeful guy because of his own background; having grown up in Northern California during the energy crunch and "malaise" of the late 1970s, he saw the rise of Silicon Valley as proof that the new futures could be imagined just when progress seemed to be hitting a wall.

But for all that, Big Coal emphasizes the entrenched power that coal interests and resource extraction barons wield to constrain our choices. He does not underestimate the obstacles to meaningful change, coming to this realization:

We hear it all the time: if we pass laws that limit CO2 emissions, the price of electricity will skyrocket and the economy will collapse! If we clean up dirty coal plants, the price of electricity will skyrocket and the economy will collapse! ...This is nothing new in America. ... the writer Ian Frazier observed, "Lincoln's great moment was saying 'I don't care if it is destructive. Slavery is wrong. 'You start with, 'Is it right or wrong?' Then you act on that judgment. You don't say, 'I'm not going to say it's wrong because it would be too impractical to undo.'"

Burning coal may not be the moral equivalent of slavery, but it is a moral question nevertheless.

One could quibble about whether Lincoln really treated slavery as the unequivocal moral evil we now so easily declare it to be. But it is worth noting that to imagine a solution to the climate crisis we face, Goodell has to shift the terrain of the discussion to a moral realm that the economic system in which we live explicitly and intentionally excludes from our social and scientific understanding of the world.

James Surowiecki who writes "The Financial Page" column in the New Yorker, similarly turned to a non-economic explanation of human behavior recently when writing about the writers' strike. He seems bemused:

Readiness to pay a price in order to enforce an idea of what is right is part of what keeps sides [in the labor dispute] from settling.... in labor relations, the bottom line isn't always the bottom line.

It takes a considerable mental shift to get that statement out of a conventional economist.

Goodell is almost certainly right that "goods" that can't be entirely calculated within capitalist economics will have to be the end of measures to preserve a livable planet. Tinkering at the edges of current practices with "cap and trade" emissions control markets isn't going to cut it. Big Coal loses if the planet wins. Can we, like the emerging Chinese, even imagine that we could demand and enforce an end to current destructive energy addictions?
Are we able to make the fight to get there?

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