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July 16, 2006

Coal, Slavery, and You

(Posted by John.)

Dave Roberts has an excellent, excellent interview at Gristmill with Jeff Goodell that you should all read.  (Full disclosure:  I'm a sometimes contributor to Gristmill as well.)  Goodell is the author of the book Big Coal, and the interview is extremely wide-ranging.

Some excerpts below:

DR: Coal boosters say we have 250 years worth of coal to burn in this country. You argue that's misleading. Why do you think that figure is inflated?

JG: It is based on old studies that haven't been updated since the '70s. Those studies themselves were based on studies from the '20s and '30s.

It's not mysterious where coal is. It doesn't pool underground; it doesn't move around. It's a sedimentary rock. We pretty much know where the coal is. The problem with that number -- 250 years, or 270 billion tons -- is that it doesn't take into account where it is and what it will take in environmental and economic terms to get it out of the ground. Vast coal reserves are buried under towns, under state parks, under forests. We've been mining coal for 150 years. We start with the easy stuff, and it gets harder and harder to get out....

DR: You mention Americans' ignorance about where  electricity comes from.

JG: Everyone I talk to can tell me the price of a gallon of gas to the tenth of a cent, but I've not found a person -- except for one guy at a reading last night who had a solar panel -- who could tell me what they pay for a kilowatt of electricity. We're completely divorced from the price. If you look at electric power bills, you will see they often make it very difficult to know exactly what you're paying.

There's a lot more in there, but I partilcularly want to highlight this, near the end:

But I get a little bit tired when people ask me, as they always do: if we're not going to burn coal, what are we going to do? What are we going replace it with? Is it nuclear? Is it solar? Is it wind?

When I was working on this book as I spent some time looking at slavery debate. During the slavery debate there was all this stuff: oh, you can't abolish slavery, the farms will collapse, what are you going to replace this labor with, we don't have people, who's going to pick our cotton, everything's going to fall apart. The great thing Lincoln said is, that's not the issue. The issue is, is it right or is it wrong? You make that decision first and then you decide how to do it. Global  warming is reaching that moment.

There's an incredible literature of southerners, smart  southerners, well-intentioned southerners, saying we won't be able to pick anything. How many people will we have to import? How many northerners will we have to hire to replace ex-slaves? The same kind of one-box-for-the-other you have with coal and wind now.

I hope Goodell's right - and it's something that I think is more broadly applicable:  The left needs to get over its fear of advocating moral causes.  The right surely isn't afraid of using the language of morality to beat their voters on the head.  The fact that, for example, national health care would be more economically efficieny and save people money is a virtue of a sort, but it's not enough.

Start from the position that change is necessary, regardless of the costs, and then work out how best to do it.

July 16, 2006 | Permalink


Why do you quote Lincoln, then ignore what he said? "Start from the position that change is necessary..." You haven't yet made that case, so why get ahead of yourself and move on already?

Global warming IS happening. And guess what... it's a good thing. Stop trying to scare people and throw money at the wrong problems.

Posted by: The Black Republican | Jul 16, 2006 1:52:17 PM

I too think it's a good thing that global warming is happening. Most people don't know this, but they have gills and will be able to adapt very well when major population centers are underwater.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Jul 16, 2006 2:30:23 PM

well, the people that did the picking were the same people who did it before, only now they were disenfranchised sharecroppers and not slaves. A mechanical cotton picker wasn't developed until the 1930's and mechanized cotton picking didn't become widespread until after WWII. So it's not a very helpful analogy.

Posted by: JR | Jul 16, 2006 2:59:45 PM

Black Republican--good article...although I'm not sure I'm ready to qualify the scenario as "good"...maybe for Canada as the lucrative US Midwest grain belt will shift north, leaving Canada richer and us harvesting Mesquite firewood. Hmmm...maybe its time to buy that oceanfront property in Greenland...

Have you read the theory of why the holocene was so stable(last 12,000 years relatively warm)? A Caltech scientist suggested that it was the emergence of man's population in significant numbers and their mass use of fire for opening grazing land and clearing farms in the tropical forests that put extra smoke and greenhouse gases that actually stabilized global fluctuations. Interesting if true...

Posted by: Steve Mudge | Jul 16, 2006 4:54:32 PM

Black Republican - I don't see any of that as a good thing. I do tend to take a "long" view when it comes to the environment - in a million years it won't matter what we've done. What I am far more concerned about is quality of life - not how we leave the planet.

I think humans are pretty damned adaptable but why the hell do we just have to, feel compelled to, destroy much of htis planet as we know it. Keep in mind as the deserts move north and south there will be violence as people have to migrate out of their own countries into fertile, sustainable lands.

And finaly, I am also concerned about the air my family and I have to breathe. It just seems to be convienient to ignore the fact that we still have to breathe. And if we keep shooting billions on billions of tons of crap into the air every year in this country alone it is going to become a shittier prospect - all this breathing people like to do.

Posted by: DuWayne | Jul 17, 2006 11:37:56 AM

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