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Coal Passions

Coal Passions

Just as a coin has two sides, environmental stories are about conflicts between legitimate, understandable human interests. Today’s New York Times has a front-page story headlined “In Virginia, Romney Scours Coal Country for Edge Over Obama” which describes how “Mr. Romney’s campaign is aggressively tapping into anger at President Obama’s environmental policies” in counties where coal miners live. Mining coal is the economic engine for thousands of families, and “coal country” has billboards with pro-coal political messages like “Coal=Jobs,” “Yes, Coal; Nobama,” and “America or Obama – You Can’t Have Them Both.” One of Mr. Romney’s television ads begins with a coal miner saying “Obama is ruining the coal industry.” Coal miners have lost jobs as environmental regulations make coal more expensive to mine, and also because coal has lost favor as an electricity generator since natural gas has become a cheaper energy source. Coal-miner passions govern local politicians, such as the Democratic state senator who rejects Obama’s re-election bid because “It’s very clear to me that the administration does not support the coal industry.”

Another side of the coin is the damage coal does to people. The current Sierra Magazine’s cover story, “The Cost of Coal: Dirty Energy’s Human Toll,” begins with this summary of hardships people in West Virginia, Michigan and Nevada endure from coal:

“When mining companies level West Virginia mountains to get at the coal beneath, whole towns disappear. When a Michigan power plant burns coal to make electricity, it triggers asthma attacks among children living nearby. When coal ash blows onto a Paiute reservation in Nevada, elders die.”

Coal miners have an understandable, strong interest in supporting their families by doing what they know how to do, mine coal. The people whose health is affected by that coal also have legitimate interests in protecting their families. Government is instituted to reconcile conflicting needs without violence, and ideally to maximize the overall sum of human satisfactions through political compromises and fair balancing of interests. Appeals to the common good are usually ineffective; I suggest that all human actions ultimately flow from each man’s pursuit of survival and comfort. Our species has evolved so that the coal miner is deaf to arguments that coal is hurting people across the country, just as the mother of a child with coal-induced asthma rejects a plea that the coal miner needs his job. Innate self-centeredness, our species’ difficulty in looking beyond the individual survival and comfort instincts programmed into each of us, is and will remain a barrier against effective actions attacking global warming.

Years ago my parents gave me thumbnail summaries of the very high self-interest hurdle environmentalists face. Mom said “The human race was a mistake,” meaning that man’s aggressive, self-centered behavior endangers the planet now that civilization has powerful technologies. Dad’s comment was more direct: “People are no damned good.” Our task is expanding man’s definition of self-interest to include the health of Earth’s natural systems, a challenge that political leaders don’t touch. President Franklin Roosevelt once told a group that he agreed with what they asked, that he wanted to do it, but the group needed “to make me do it” by creating public pressure. That’s what this blog and thousands of others are dedicated to; building powerful constituencies for effective action against human-caused climate change.

Image by I, Nostrifikator [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC-BY-SA-2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons


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