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Newberry: Black Gods - Big Coal Cons America

Black Gods: Big Coal Cons America

By Stirling Newberry
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

Sunday 09 July 2006

America worships a black god - namely, the energy we extract from carbons and hydrocarbon sources. What is ending might be called "the era of cheap carbon energy." This is roughly equivalent to the point where trees could no longer supply the carbon energy needs for industrialization in the 18th century. The growth of the world economy is such that the easy-to-extract sources are no longer sufficient for the uses that we can put them to. A key part of this is the durability of the capital of the internal combustion era - cars, houses, factories, buildings - all built with the expectation of falling, or at least slowly rising, costs of carbon energy. The amount of capital that burns carbon is a stock: it keeps accumulating; but the supply of energy is a flow: it is a channel of a certain width, and it takes a great deal of time and effort to expand this channel.

This means that the global economy and the global society - for it is now a global era - are facing a crossroads. One road is to decide that carbon is a rock, and that it belongs mainly in the ground, or bound up in the complex system of life and environment. The other is to believe that by pouring a huge amount of money into the current system, it will be possible to ameliorate enough of the current problems with the energy system to survive, well, at least as long as 65-year-old executives with heart conditions can expect to survive.

What has been lacking is a book that explains what this second road means. On the surface it seems attractive: the United States does not have much more cheap carbon, called "conventional" sources, but has a huge amount of "non-conventional" energy, both in the form of kerogenes - a kind of pre-petroleum which is often called "shale oil" - and in the form of vast coal deposits. The chant for "energy independence" which politicians and writers of the cheaper kind so easily fall into rests on this huge reserve of black energy.

Finally there is a good, concise starting point for understanding what we are really facing in trying to sweep problems under the carpet: Big Coal. It is the product of the keyboard of Jeff Goodell, a journalist whose work appears in Rolling Stone, the New York Times Magazine, and who already has a bestselling non-fiction book to his credit. In short, this is the product of a man whose life is finding out facts and casting them into words that tell a story. He divides his into three parts, "The Dig," "The Burn" and "The Heat."

In doing so he takes an odyssey back to the roots of the modern industrial system, where people still dig coal out of the ground, and despite all of the advances in technology, they are only a cave-in away from being trapped in 1750, or even 1550. Coal is mined, stored and moved with better equipment, better management and better organization, but in the end, it is still a rock that burns. He notes this in the beginning of the chapter "The Carbon Express." In short, the coal economy of the 19th century - that inspiration for industrial dystopianism in both philosophy and literature - has never really gone away, having merely been placed carefully and polished around the edges.

However, it is not coal's past, but its future, that concerns Jeff Goodell the most. He points out the simple fact, if we allow for continued externalization of the costs of carbon based energy, that coal is the fuel of choice, since it externalizes a great deal more cost, and is basically pure carbon waiting to be shoveled into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. Even with improvements to coal-fired plants, even with all of the technology that can be brought to bear, coal wins, because coal doesn't need to be about more than mine it, ship it, crush it, burn it - and let others bear the risks.

But it is in Chapter 9, "The Coal Rush," that the acid edge of his keys shows; loaded with explanation points, he talks about the excitement, the bubbling opportunism and optimism of a path of least resistance in America which will happily rush to the bottom, equal with China. It is in Beijing that American cities should see their future. Goodell cites the International Energy Agency's estimate that there will be a total of 14 gigawatts/year of coal-fired power production added by 2030, which would add almost 12 million tons of carbon dioxide to the air over the lifetime of the power plants. This is several times the total savings from the Kyoto Protocol. Since coal is a labor-intensive industry, it promises those who have strong backs and quick wits the chance to earn higher wages than can be gotten at Wal-Mart. Laden with irony, Goodell puts back on the radar screen the energy future that is being sold, "around the filter," to the hinterlands public, which is being persuaded that they will live like Saudi princes again, if only the evils of air quality are removed.

As much as this book should be on every thinking person's night stand in the next year, it is here, essentially, that he leaves off. The last chapter talks about the obvious global warming effects, and the destruction of eco-systems, which has been told at length elsewhere. This is not to damn with small praise - it is a story that needs to be repeated often and in many places. However, he does not refute the ur-economic argument that cutting air quality is increasing pay scales.

And it is this argument that, head on, the other future, the non-carbon future, must rebut. The argument that we have at least a generation of churn and burn economy left, and that the costs will be paid by some vague "out there."

The answer to this question is found partially in the physical facts of Goodell's narrative. One of the reasons for the transition from coal to petroleum in the early 20th century is that petroleum is far more energy-dense than coal is, and converting coal into a liquid or gas is an energy-intensive proposition. Coal, in short, might be a good source of energy, but it is a terrible way to transport it. To transport the volume of coal needed to substitute for oil imports would require a vast build-out of transportation infrastructure - a build-out that would merely keep in place current living standards.

It is this trailing fact that is the second part of the answer to why the coal future is not economically feasible. In essence, the hydrocarbon economy is like the Windows operating system: much of what Microsoft can charge you for Windows is the pain of switching away from Windows. Much of what the hydro-carbon economy can charge nations, companies and individuals is the pain of shifting away from the hydrocarbon economy itself. There might be a better operating system or energy system, but people won't go there as long as the costs of moving are too great.

In the case of operating systems there are two components.

One is software piracy. How many people steal software from work? The equivalent in the energy system is, as mentioned, global warming and pollution - and the subsidizing of consumer use of infrastructure by business and government. Every mile you drive you are stealing air quality and environment from someone in the future. You drive over roads that are subsidized by military and businesses. This is why "Big Carbon" - that is, coal plus oil - has dumped huge amounts of money into research and researchers in order to defraud the American public about the onset of global warming. It is larger than the tobacco fraud, larger by orders of magnitude, because we've been told that cars aren't bad for our health.

The second is related: the network effect. The network effect shows up in Windows every time a program is only written for Windows. Why was it written for Windows? Because most people have Windows. Why do people participate in the carbon economy? Because something they want is only available there, like the house they want that is out of range of a rechargeable car, or the ability to load up lots of kids for soccer practice.

Which means that what Big Carbon can charge people, isn't really about "limitless opportunity," it is the value of the capital already accumulated that is "locked into" the carbon economy: internal combustion engines, the things that build and service them, and the things which are made possible by having an energy-dense source of fuel that is highly transportable. In short, the sprawlconomy and the aircraft industries.

In short, Goodell turns in a work very much like his other attentive, easily-read and yet accurate and worthwhile narratives, Sunnyvale, Our Story and The Cyberthief and the Samurai. All offer powerful warnings about people who do not think about the future, or the risks inherent in the present. It should set people to thinking about whether they really want an America where there are plenty of jobs, so long as you don't drink the water and don't breath the air. This leads to a host of economic questions as to whether America really can, in fact, even do this - drag ourselves back to the coal economy. Will people immigrate to a race-to-the bottom nation? Will people pay premiums to live in suburbs where mercury poisons their children?

In short, Goodell draws the starting line of what is the Red Queen's Race, of trying to hide enough of the effects of coal's externalities to keep people locked into an energy system which time has started to pass by. The pressure, from many of the poorest regions of America, is going to be intense. They see a rich world and wonder why they shouldn't be given a chance at the riches they see others enjoying, and they will push very hard for an America that, like London in 1890, or Shanghai today, is cloaked in a choking fog formed of the soot from smoke stacks.


Stirling Newberry is an internet business and strategy consultant, with experience in international telecom, consumer marketing, e-commerce and forensic database analysis. He has acted as an advisor to Democratic political campaigns and organizations and is the co-founder, along with Christopher Lydon, Jay Rosen and Matt Stoller, of BopNews, as well as the military affairs editor of The Agonist.

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