Power at a Price

Last week, the United States experienced its worst mining disaster in four decades when an explosion killed 29 miners. Even when they’re being blown to pieces, coal miners live a life staring black lung and collapsing ceilings in the face each day. On the other hand, coal mining is, statistically speaking, less dangerous than many other jobs including roofers, garbage collectors, and, wait for it, farmers/ranchers. (All of this drawn from a Business Insider list.)

Mining, I suppose, gets the press and attention because of the dramatic nature of its accidents. When Farmer Bob dies as a result of not paying proper respect to a baler, the accident is gruesome and terrible, but it doesn’t make the evening news. Multiple-fatality farming accidents are quite rare, as are farm-related rescue operations that keep the nation on edge for days. The story, from journalism’s point of view, will be long over before the remote trucks can make it to Farmer Bob’s pasture. No dramatic video can be shot; the governor can’t be interviewed. Ho hum.

All of this is not intended to discount the danger inherent in coal mining. On my college faculty, I can name at least five people who steal away whenever they can to pursue their farming dreams, despite the danger inherent in the pursuit. Have you ever heard of a college professor arranging his schedule to pursue a life-long passion for coal mining? I don’t think so.

Last week, as the rescue operation in West Virginia transformed into a recovery operation, a group of teen boys slept in my barn and left the outside light on all night. Any time I find a light left on, a light that isn’t serving any function, a computer humming away for hours without use, a TV blaring with no one watching, I grumble and think of the small increase to my bill. What I should think about is the bit of coal necessary to produce that power.

I appreciate ready electrical power. I don’t want to live a nineteenth-century life. But I also don’t want to take lightly the danger faced by coal miners as they attempt to fuel all of that energy need. I don’t want to ignore the environmental scarring that happens in the wake of the mines. What if we could all cut back? What if that McMansion on the corner didn’t have twenty-three outside lights burning throughout the night? What if we didn’t attempt to cool our homes to the temperature of a meat locker throughout the summer?

If we could moderate our use, if we could think of lives threatened and streams fouled every time we plug something in, then maybe the impact would be diminished. Yes, coal mining would remain a dangerous pursuit, but perhaps the body count would diminish.