Do any of us really have a right to be angry or frustrated about the climate- and-energy crisis without considering how we ourselves have contributed to it? Honestly? Truly? With eyes wide open? I don’t think so. We all play a role in producing the problem. No one inhabits a righteous, pure-and-holy aerie above the human condition. Not me, not you, not anybody.
We all drive our chariots of carbon fire. We all rely on carbon fuels to produce our clothing, food supply, lighting, the thermal comfort in our houses, and much more. Do other ties bind you to fossil fuels? Investments, perhaps? Is your comfort and prosperity today derived from a family history linked to oil or coal? Or, to take a broader view of environmental abuse, logging, commercial fishing, industrial farming, or rapacious real estate schemes?
Since such ties weave through many of our lives, allow me to make a sheepish confession: my own family’s history is shackled to coal mining. My great-grandfather on my mother’s side and my grandfather on my father’s side both mined coal in Pennsylvania. Most of that state is as bucolic and charming as any place ever sculpted by agrarian hands. Yet where mines gnaw at the black seams, the landscape is grim and grimy. Inside those lithic mausoleums, workers metamorphosed the way shale turns to schist. My progenitors would have been ruddy-faced farmers back in their European homelands, but instead turned into hunched-over gnomes, coated in coal dust, half deaf from the roar of machinery, inhaling particles of primor-dial Gondwanaland with one gritty breath after another. To the industrial volcanoes of Pittsburgh, up chimneys of snug homes in Philadelphia and New York, the coal they dug sent the energy of ancient suns floating up to cumulus skies.
I can still picture Thomas, my great-grandfather, sitting hour after hour, as motionless as Mount Rushmore, on a musty, striped corduroy chair by the parlor window of his house. He looked 1,000 years old. Savage labor in the anthracite seams had broken his body. Coal dust fouled those little pockets in his lungs where red blood should have been gleefully slurping up oxygen. Was he in pursuit of “doing what you love,” as we say in the jargon of our self-indulgent times? No. He needed cash to support his family and was willing to trade away his existence for it; every shovelful of black carbon was an expression of his hope in a dream called America. [Continue reading…]