Invisible Energy

31 Oct
Coal mining Leseband

Image via Wikipedia

It’s been a while since my last post, mainly because researching and actually writing the book has taken precedence. But I read something last night that reminded me why I’m writing this book in the first place, and felt compelled to blog about it.

For the past few years I’ve taught a magazine writing class at the Indiana University School of Journalism, and this semester I assigned a 2007 GQ article titled “Underworld,” written by Jeanne Marie Laskas. It’s a fantastic piece about the dark, hidden world of a working coal mine. Laskas spent months shadowing workers in a mine in eastern Ohio, spending many hours underground with a crew, seeing and experiencing things that most people hardly know exist.

What struck me most about the piece, and what I took to be the story’s main theme, was the strange and ironic invisibility of something so loud, visceral, and vital. Here’s how Laskas put it:

I live on top of a massive vein of medium-sulfur bituminous coal–the very famous Pittsburgh Number 8 Seam that extends from eastern Ohio to western Maryland, where coal has played a vital role in the economy and culture for over a century. The fact that it still does takes a lot of people by surprise. We still have coal mines? I got that question a lot when I told people that I was hanging out in a coal mine.

In this way, I was slightly ahead of the curve: I know coal mined existed. And not just in pockets of some America that never caught up, not as funky remnants of a bygone era, but as current places of work, day after day, guys with lunch buckets heading in and heading out, taking home sixty, seventy, eighty thousand dollars a year … The question I had doing in was almost ridiculous in nature: If coal is really this big, and all these people really exist, how is it that I know nothing about them?

Precisely. The short answer, of course, is that coal mining is invisible largely because it’s underground. Oil drilling, with its iconic derricks and offshore platforms, is more visible, if still mostly mysterious to people who don’t happen to live near an oil field. Even alternative technologies, like wind turbines and solar panels, are more visible than coal, even though as industries they’re miniscule compared to the coal business.

But mainly coal is invisible because we don’t really want to know about it. When a mine collapses and miners are trapped or killed, suddenly the dirty business of gouging from the earth the stuff that makes our modern civilization possible is thrust in our faces. We collectively hope for the best and shake our heads about what a dangerous business coal mining is, and then once the crisis is over we promptly put the whole thing out of our minds and willfully forget, until the next disaster.

The irony, of course, is that coal is absolutely vital to just about everything we do, every day. In our day-to-day lives, plugged in as we are to our phones and computers and hundreds of other electrical devices (not to mention more mundane technologies like refrigerators, dishwashers, washing machines, and toasters), we’re much more dependent on coal than we are on oil (which we consume most directly as transportation fuel–although oil plays a much more pervasive role in our lives in every thing from the plastic bags we use to pack our kids lunches to the pills we take to combat high blood pressure). If you’re reading this on a computer (which I assume you are; it’s hard to imagine someone actually printing this out), you are quite literally participating in the burning of several pounds of coal. The fact that you never have to see, smell, breathe in, or taste this coal is part of the miracle of modern energy engineering. All we know, and barely understand, is that when we plug things in, they somehow work. The electricity that makes things work is odorless, invisible, mute. But on the other end, making that flow of electrons possible, is a great, fiery furnace within which burns an everlasting, coal-fed fireball.

Which brings me back to the point of the book, which is to make energy visible. It’s hard to take renewable technologies seriously if you don’t understand where they come from. And it’s impossible to know where they come from without knowing the story of energy writ large. Because energy was not always invisible. Not so long ago, when people had coal cellars, and before than when survival meant chopping wood and carrying water, energy was an all-too visible and pervasive part of people’s lives. Today we’re blessed with a modern system that tucks power plants away in remote regions. But we’re also cursed in being so far removed from our sources of energy that we’ve almost entirely forgotten and in many cases never knew what they are and how they work. Any society so ignorant of its most basic technological underpinnings is on shaky footing, primed for economic and ecological disaster.

Melodramatic? Maybe. But the prices of electricity and oil are volatile. The ice caps are not going to stop melting. The globe is changing bit by bit. It’s our job, our duty, to be aware, to take note and do our best to understand what we’re doing, what we’ve done, and what we need to do going forward.

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