Sunday, July 16, 2006

Coal, Slavery, and You

(This was posted earlier at Ezra's.)

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:

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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"Start from the position that change is necessary, regardless of the costs"

The cost of ridding the country of slavery was pretty high, what, 1/2 million lives? And the result was far from perfect. In today's terms, that might mean the death of 3-4 million Americans in another political war.

Glad to hear you are getting serious.

Bob McManus